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Home Blog Which developer strength should I use? A complete guide for colorists

Which developer strength should I use? A complete guide for colorists


What is developer & what exactly does it do?

Developer or activator is essentially hydrogen peroxide in a cream base.

It is a necessary element in any coloration involving permanent hair color and bleaching process.

The hydrogen peroxide opens the hair cuticle.

It also combines with the permanent hair color, toner or bleach and helps activate it.

Thanks to the developer and color combination, the following things happen:

  • The hair cuticle gets opened so that the color pigments can penetrate it.
  • The natural color molecules (the hair melanin, in other words) as well as molecules from previous color applications get lifted out
  • New color pigments get delivered and get inserted into the cortex of the hair.
  • Once installed, the color molecules swell, develop and expand and ultimately become a part of the hair shaft.
  • Once installed correctly thanks to developer, the color is permanent.
  • You will only need to worry about regrowth

In addition to the above, the developer + color combination also does the following:

  • Softens coarse hair and adds body to fine hair. 
  • Alters the internal body of the hair fiber permanently. 

Which is why hair oftentimes feels softer, stronger and thicker after a coloring.

Provided, of course, that it has been done right.

How should I choose the right strength of developer?

First off, what exactly are you trying to do?

Are you trying to lift the hair level, go darker, or stay level-on-level?

Are you trying to use color, high lift color toner or bleach?

Because the answer is going to depend on these questions.

We will go through all these cases one by one in this blog now.

Developer choice going lighter with regular color

Here are the rules for developer choice when going lighter using regular professional color:

  • Use 10 Vol for tone down coloring and level-on-level coloring.
  • Use 20 Vol if you are aiming for a 1-2 level lift (and if you have grey hair that needs covering).
  • Use 30 Vol if you are aiming for a 2-3 level lift.
  • Use 40 Vol if you are aiming for a 3 level lift and if the hair is particularly difficult to color.
  • 1+1 is the right mix for Ugly Duckling colors and you should stick to that.
  • Do not try to tweak the mix in order to get more lift.

Developer choice when lifting by more than 3 levels

What if you are aiming to lift by more than 3 levels?

In that case you can't do it using regular permanent color.

You will need to bleach first, and then color. This is a very standard coloring process in a salon and is what we generally recommend.

If you are very averse to using bleach, you can use a high lift color instead.

The rules for developer choice when using bleach or high lift color are as follows:

  • For bleach: 20 Vol for 1-3 levels lift, and 30 Vol for anything more.
  • For high lift color: 30 Vol for up to 5 levels lift.

Developer choice on the root area

The hair nearest the root will lift and lighten faster than any other hair. This is so for 2 reasons:

  • It's virgin hair, and virgin hair always lifts faster than hair that has had color put on it.
  • It gets heat from the scalp, and that heat speeds up color and bleach processing.

So as a colorist, you need to take account of the fact.

  • You can do so either by making a separate mix for that area. For instance, you can use 20 Vol only on the root area, rather than 30 Vol.
  • Applying on the root part at the end, and doing the rest first.

Hairdressers sometimes do both of the above in order to get an even color result from roots to tips.


Hair by Elona Taki

Developer choice going lighter with bleach

Using bleach is not difficult.

But you do need to follow the rules very carefully.

For bleach, follow the rules below:

  • For up to 3 levels lift, use bleach with 20 Vol developer.
  • For greater than 3 levels lift, use bleach with 30 Vol developer.
  • For second time bleach applications, use only 20 Vol developer. Otherwise you will damage the hair excessively.
  • For the root area, use 20 Vol unless the hair is really really dark.
  • Once the hair has been lightened correctly, you should only need to use 20 Vol developer with your color.
  • Basically, 30 Vol should only be used once, and preferably on the lengths and not on the root area.
  • Be aware that not all bleaches are the same in terms of lifting properties.
  • Ugly Duckling bleaches will work very well with 20 and 30 Vol developer and will never need anything stronger.
  • Once again, you need to respect the mix.
  • 1 part bleach to 2 parts developer is what we recommend.


Hair by Elona Taki

Developer choice going lighter using high-lift color

High lift colors have extra lift built in them and can lift up to 4-5 levels.

This is convenient if you are looking to avoid using bleach.

The rules for using high lift color are as follows:

  • Use 30 Vol developer.
  • Make your mix 1 part color to 2 parts developer.


Hair by Elona Taki

Developer choice for grey hair coverage 

There is a mistaken notion (taught even in some costemtology classes) that grey hair coverage is level-on-level, so you should use only 10 Vol.

However, you are unlikely to get good results that way.

Grey hair needs to be opened up so that color molecules penetrate deep into the hair cuticle.

So 20 Vol is the best solution in most cases.

  • For any grey hair application, use 20 Volume developer (6% peroxide).
  • Grey hair needs extra softening to open up.
  • Also, in the case of salt and pepper hair when going blonde, the "pepper" part needs to be lifted up. Otherwise it will always stick out..
  • The mix is 1+1.
  • Develop the color for at least 20-30 minutes.
  • You will get better grey hair coverage that way and more vivid color results that way.

Developer choice for level-on-level coloring or coloring darker

  • When coloring level-on-level or darker, you can use 10 or 20 Vol developer.
  • Once again, the mix should always be respected: 1 part color to 1 part developer.

Developer choice when toning blonde hair

  • For toning with Ugly Duckling cream based toners, we recommend that you use either 10 or 20 Volume developer.
  • For toning with Blondify Liquid Toners, the mix is also 10 or 20 Vol.
  • Be aware that cream toners have a mix of 1 part toner to 1 part developer.
  • Whereas liquid toners are best used 1 part toner to 1 part developer.


Hair by Elona Taki


Developer choice when the hair has been previously colored. 

  • Hair that has had color deposited into it will be harder to lift than virgin hair.
  • In particular, hair that has been colored black or dark with box dye is notoriously difficult to remove.
  • Henna hair, metallic dyed hair are also difficult to remove.
  • So are (paradoxically) some semi-permanent colors.
  • Which are oftentimes not semi-permanent at all.
  • These colors work by staining the surface of the hair and can be very stubborn.
  • In such cases you would need to bump up the developer choice by one level.

Developer choice on porous hair

  • Porous hair is easily lifted and it absorbs the color very well. But the color will fade quickly.
  • Very often it is the ends which are porous, whereas the roots and mid-lengths are in much better condition.
  • Very often these porous ends are blonde anyway.
  • So if you are trying to go lighter and the ends are blonde and porous you should use a lower volume developer or shorten the processing time at the ends by only applying in the last 5-10 minutes or so.
  • When darkening porous ends, you would need to use the regular volume of developer to ensure better penetration of color pigments.

I need to lift a lot & I don't want to use bleach. Is it OK to use 40 Vol developer with my color instead?

  • It is not recommended to use 40 Vol with color as a general rule.
  • Only use 40 Vol when you have some exceptional lifting challenges.
  • Hair that has been box dyed (previously colored darker) would be one example.
  • Hair that has been dyed with a metallic dye, henna or a very stubborn semi-permanent color would be another.
  • 40 Vol developer tend to swell up the hair cuticle so much that it risks blowing it apart permanently.
  • Instead of bumping up the developer strength to 40 Vol, we would suggest you use a quality bleach with 20 or 30 Vol.
  • Then after that apply your color with 20 Vol. developer.
  • You will get much better results that way.
  • Incidentally, this is what experienced hairdressers do.
  • It's called "Double Process Blonding".
  • And it's common for a reason!


Hair by Elona Taki

I bleached my hair with 30 Vol and my hair is still orange. Should I use the bleach with 40 Vol developer?

  • What bleach were you using?
  • All bleaches are not the same and some beauty store bleaches in particular have very poor lifting properties.
  • Using a poor quality bleach with 40 Vol developer is unfortunately just asking for trouble.
  • Better to use a quality bleach which lifts fast and well - and use 20 or 30 Vol developer with that.

Which brand of developer should I use?

We do recommend that you use Ugly Duckling developers when possible. 

They are made to the very highest cosmetics standards.

They activate well, in a controlled way, and they will respect hair integrity.

That being said, it is not strictly necessary to match the brand of developer with the brand of color or bleach.

Provided you get the choice of developer strength, mix and choice of product right.

However, we do recommend that you note the following:

  • Make sure that the developer has a manufacturing date controlled by lot number to guarantee freshness.
  • Be aware that stale developer loses its lifting power.
  • If a bottle of developer has swelled slightly, throw it away and don't use it. It is stale.
  • In general, we don't recommend you use gallon bottles of developer.
  • You will get far better quality and freshness using liter (33 oz) bottles.
  • Try to use a cream based developer. Not a liquid based peroxide.
  • Make sure that your developer has not been not left opened or in a hot place. Exposure to heat will degrade its lifting capability.

If in doubt, use Ugly Duckling developers. We take care of all the following points for you.

You will see a lot number and an expiry date and you will know that your developer is fresh.

So which developer strength is the right one for me?

Why not use our interactive module? It will help you make the right choice.

About the author

Sally has been a hair colorist and trainer for many years in both the US & Europe. She currently does hair color training for Ugly Duckling. She also helps develop new & awesome products for the brand.

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