Complete Guide to Choosing and Applying Beard Dye

What Is Beard Dye?

Compared to most standard hair dyes (the stuff you’d use on your head), beard dyes have a few key differences. For one, the formula is often gentler in beard dyes, since the skin on our faces tends to be more sensitive than that on our scalp. Secondly, many beard dyes don’t provide 100 percent block coverage, since this creates a “shoe polish” effect across the face.

To borrow a term, man beard dye formulas use demi-permanent dyes that bring gray or stray blonde hairs more to a central color, and then it gradually fades over time to retain a natural appearance (and one that is so subtle it won’t turn heads for the wrong reasons).

Also, most hair dyes assume that the user will be utilizing the entire box (or most of it), while many beard dyes factor in that you'll want multiple uses out of the container. So they are often bottled for ongoing use (typically up to three months), though dyeing a larger, fuller beard will get fewer uses. Many demi-permanent men’s dyeing brands also create an all-in-one product for the hair, beard, body hair, and so forth, but they devise these products first and foremost for the sensitive skin on the face, which almost always prevents reactions from the rest of the body.

Fortunately, most modern formulas will not stain the skin, and can be rinsed clean from the dermis if used as necessary. It is highly recommended, however, that you use gloves when dyeing (they’re typically included), and avoid getting the product on walls, clothes, carpets, and rugs. Many beard dye companies will also provide a small application brush to help distribute the product evenly through your whiskers.

The duration of each dye differs from one brand to the next, and it also depends on how long your hair is when you dye it. If you’re dyeing a full beard, then a couple weeks’ growth of gray roots may go unnoticed. But if you’re dyeing weeks’ old stubble (which is possible), then you may need to touch it up every time you trim, because the contrast will be noticeable much sooner.

Ingredient Considerations

As for ingredients, there are two key warnings. One is to avoid anything with ammonia. Luckily, this is largely out of play in modern dyes. You can smell ammonia when it’s contained in a dye, and it’s extremely unpleasant. Ammonia helps dyes penetrate the hair cuticle, but it also significantly damages the cuticle and makes it brittle and frail.

Secondly, many consumers choose to avoid an ingredient called PPD (which stands for Para-phenylenediamine). These are most common in permanent hair dyes (as opposed to demi-permanent ones), and are much likelier to trigger an allergic reaction. One allergen study found that over 6% of North American participants reacted negatively to PPD.

That same study compares PPD to a common alternative, HPPS (which stands for Hydroxyethyl-p-phenylenediamine sulfate). People were nearly nine times less likely to have a reaction to HPPS, which makes it a much more attractive ingredient in all hair dye formulas (not just beard dyes). A similar alternative is PTDS (Para-toluenediamine sulfate). You’ll see all three ingredients mentioned among our beard dye picks below, so keep them in mind. Again, PPD is the highest risk for negative reaction, while HPPS and PTDS are much safer.

Regardless, you should test a new formula on a small area of skin 48 hours before applying it uniformly. This will allow you to track your own reaction to whichever chemicals have been used.

How to Choose a Formula

There are really two simple ways to separate beard-dye formulas. Either they are permanent dyes (which dye uniformly and typically won’t fade with time), or demi-permanent dyes (which help create a more natural gradient by ‘blending’ grays or blondes into the natural color; these will slowly fade over a few weeks’ time).

One of the easiest ways to tell these two apart is whether or not they include the aforementioned chemical PPD. It’s a much harsher dyeing compound, and it’s more common in permanent and mass-made dyes. Demi-permanent, small-batch formulas (not to sound too hipster with this) will typically use alternatives, like the aforementioned HPPS or PTDS, which are gentler dyeing agents.

If you want guaranteed quality, then definitely avoid PPD. Most brands that contain it will shield their ingredients list from you on their website and e- retailers. Even their FAQs will lack a question about ingredients… which is probably one of the most frequently asked questions in the first place.

You’ll see me contradict myself below, however, when I do suggest using Just for Men in specific occasions. It has PPD in it, and its ingredients are not listed on its site (hmmm). But, I do think it works; I just don’t believe everyone should use it, and it’s most important to know about its use of PPD before you buy it—just to be aware, and of course to avoid it if that’s a complete turn off.

So, here goes the contradiction: In my experience (as someone who really only dyes out the smattering of blonde hairs in his otherwise medium-brown mustache and goatee), permanent options are perfectly fine so long as I am only dyeing short, weeks-old growth. This masks the dreaded “block color” (or shoe polish effect) that makes it look dyed at all. Most people just think my mustache grew much fuller over the weekend, whereas all I did was make it one uniform color. I would never use this permanent dye for a full, bushy beard, though, because it would look unnatural. Again, permanent options often contain PPD and are also much likelier to cause irritation. Most men will be totally fine, but you should still proceed with caution and test a small patch of skin 48 hours in advance (as you should with any and all beard dye formulas).

How long each product lasts is really more a question of “How often do you personally need to reapply?” Guys with shorter beards will reapply more often, since the contrast will shower sooner. This could be weekly, bi weekly, monthly. Guys with longer beards may notice the “demi-permanent” gradual fading effects more readily than the guys who have to dye more frequently. In this case, once a month is usually advised for touch ups, but you’ll have to assess for yourself and reapply as needed.

How to Choose the Right Shade

The general rule of thumb for choosing your beard shade is to go one shade lighter than you might expect. This is true for two reasons: First, you can always go darker, but not lighter. And secondly, this allows the dye to bring stray grays/blondes to a more center color (blending them in, effectively), while it won’t have as much of an impact on your already dark whiskers. (Dark hairs don’t take color very well unless they are first bleached.)

How to Apply Beard Dye

While you should follow the specific instructions of whichever beard dye you purchase, here are the general steps.

  1. It’s not necessary to wash your beard first. Ideally you washed your beard the night before, or the morning of. Regardless, it’s good to space apart your dyeing and your cleansing, because some of the natural oils in your beard can help the color soak in. Some brands will advise you to have a fresh cleanse, though, in which case you should do so. Perhaps their ingredients absorb better without the natural oils present.
  2. If you’re dyeing short beards and mustaches, then trim after dyeing. It can be helpful to have as much hair as possible when dyeing short beards. (Otherwise you’re just lathering dye across the skin.) So, maintain your pre-trimmed length as you dye—or trim the hairs down to a 3 or 4 on your beard trimmer (at shortest), and apply the dye there. You can then trim down to stubble or near stubble from there. The extra volume of hair will help a lot when it comes to color retention, allowing it to “lather” just a bit more.
  3. Clear the area, strip down, and wear gloves. Dyes will stain your clothing, surfaces, and pretty much anything else. They’re dyes, after all. So, proceed with caution. Wear whichever gloves the brand has provided you. Stir the formula carefully. Apply it carefully. Chances are, it won’t leave stains on your face, but it can easily stain the hands and anything else it touches.
  4. Mix the dye and the color developer/activator. Most dyes come in a kit, and there’s a color activating/developing agent that is separate from the dye. Again, this can vary from one brand to the next (as well as how much developer to use). Follow the product’s specific instructions. But this activator effectively opens up the hair’s cuticle and allows the dye to penetrate each strand. It makes the process much more effective and gentle.
  5. Leave on as directed. Typically 5-10 minutes will suffice (and more on the shorter end with facial hair). Regardless, follow the instructions of your specific product.
  6. Wash it away. The easiest way to remove the dye is to hop in the shower, but you can also use a standard cleanser to flush away the chemicals and reveal your new color. Just be cautious of any errant dye that splashes around your sink, tiles, shower curtain, floor, or walls. This is often why the shower is best: it’s easiest to quickly flush everything away without letting it settle and stain any surfaces.

The Best Beard Dyes

Best Foam: True Sons Hair Dye Foam

True Sons’ demi-permanent dye comes in an aerosol foam canister, which gives it one of the longest shelf lives among other options, along with Simpler Hair Color below. (Many other dyes will oxidize and be rendered ineffective after a month or two.) The formula is also pre-mixed, so there is no step of adding developer with the dye formula (as outlined below in our “How to Apply” section). It can be used on the scalp, face, and body, and delivers a “blended” result, which gives grays a soft, natural coloring without dyeing everything one solid flat block color.

It combines both HPPS and PTDS dyeing agents, and one bottle can get roughly up to a dozen applications on a short beard. True Sons carries seven shades, from ginger and blonde to brown black and true black, it’s got something that will carefully match your natural shade.

Best Kit: Simpler Multi-Use Dye For Hair and Beard

Simpler is another terrific foam dye, which maintains a longer shelf life, past the typical 1-2 month window of competitors’ dyes. Simpler comes with a brush that makes for easy, uniform application, too, if you would rather not massage it in with your hands. (Still, wear the gloves.) Simpler has seven shades, from ginger to black, so there’s guaranteed to be something for you. Each can promises roughly 3-4 applications on a full head of head, or 12 applications on your short beard alone. Its primary dyeing agent is PTDS, and the brand prides itself for being an aerosol dye with no flammable ingredients. (“No flammable ingredients” on your face is a good thing, regardless of the odds of you hovering near an open flame while dyeing.) It also nourishes skin and hair with oils of aloe vera, coconut, avocado, jojoba, and meadowfoam seeds, delivering antioxidants and soothing, fortifying nutrients.

Best For Hair Health: Madison Reed Hair Color for Men

Already one of the most trusted names in salon-caliber hair dyes, Madison Reed is venturing into the men’s / facial hair territory now. One great temperature check for Madison Reed is that its hair dye is formulated in the EU (in Italy, specifically). The product standards in the EU are far stricter than in the US, so there are far fewer chemicals that they’re allowed to use in their ingredients. This is promising for the health of your hair, especially considering that Madison Reed’s formula also contains eucalyptus leaf oil, hops extract, and antioxidant black pepper seed, which together plump hair full of antioxidants, moisture, and natural shine. This one does practice the typical 2-step process of applying dye and then adding the activator/developer (and is suggested that you apply them one after the next rather than mixing them together for a single application). You should get 4-6 applications for a short beard out of this one, at minimum, but expect a shorter shelf life than aerosol cans since some oxygen will enter the tubes during use. (You’ll be fine if you use it all in a month or two.) Its primary dyeing agent is PTDS.

Best Permanent Dye: Just for Men Mustache & Beard Dye

Truth be told, Just for Men gets the job done when you need a quick, light touch up. So, for guys with just a few grays/blondes and who won’t be using it across their entire beard, Just for Men is a terrific pick. You only have to be cognisant of its use of PPD, the ingredient that all the other brands above proudly avoid. (It’s on par with the debate over using aluminum antiperspirants, or avoiding the ingredient altogether. Some people have severe reactions, but by and large, most people are totally fine.) For a short beard, you’ll get 2-3 uses out of the two-step formula, wherein you blend the developer and dye together before brushing them into your whiskers. After a month or 2 of opening the tiny tubes, you’ll notice that they’ve oxidized and won’t dye anymore. It’s the cheapest option of the lot, too, but the value of the other products (far more applications for your money, and longer shelf life, not to mention better ingredients) paints a good argument for them.

So, all things considered, it is recommended with caution. I use it most often myself (and love the other picks here), but I’m also only dyeing sparse blondes and grays. As soon as they grow more prominently, I’ll without question upgrade to any of the picks above.

The Takeaway

For shorter beards or standalone mustaches with a few stray blondes or grays, the less expensive “permanent” dyes (like Just For Men) are a perfectly fine option—so long as you test your skin’s sensitivity to it first. Guys looking to cover up lots of grays or dye fuller beards should always opt for a “demi- permanent” pick for a more natural (and less shoe-polishy) finish, even though they won’t fully dye all of the light hairs. Again, test any new formula on your skin 48 hours prior to use.

Lead image product provided by Just For Men.

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