What Are the Differences Between Hair Color Activators & Developers?

Salons mix colors with developer to get you the results you want.

Photo: Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

You color your hair to enhance your natural hue, to cover (gasp!) grays or to express your style. Whatever your reason, you want to use the right products to ensure your results are classy, not drab or brassy. If you pick up hair color activator instead of hair color developer, don’t despair! These two products do essentially the same thing, so you can get enviable tresses in sophisticated brunette, sexy blonde or attention-getting red.


Color activator and color developer are two different names for the same product that initiates the chemical reaction that makes your hair change color. In most cases, hair dyes use some level of hydrogen peroxide as the activator. The product allows the dye to enter your hair shaft and make permanent changes. Most home dyes already have developer included in the box – but if you purchase a salon-quality dye, you have to purchase developer or activator separately.


Hair-care product manufacturers recommend you stick to their particular line when purchasing a developer or activator. If you do go for one brand of color and another of developer, you have no basis to go back to either company if your hoped-for blonde turns a brassy orange. Some companies offer different types and strengths of developer (or activator, remember they are the same thing) to pair with compatible hair dye formulas to give you the best results.


The strength of the developer you use depends on the results you want and the manufacturer’s directions. Unless you know what you are doing, you are best off sticking to a salon for hair coloring. When you color your hair yourself, you risk missing entire sections – or worse, doing severe damage to your precious strands.


Not all hair dye uses developer or activators. Temporary and semi-temporary hair colors simply coat the outer strands of your hair, which is why they last, at most, only six shampoos. Demi- and semi-permanent colors use low levels of peroxide developers. Permanent dye has the strongest developers and can do the most potential damage to your hair because it fully opens your hair’s outer layer – allowing the color to seep in while the developer makes it stick. When you open this outer layer, your hair is vulnerable to losing moisture and breakage.

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