Colorful dye jobs go viral on Instagram as often as Kim Kardashian posts selfies — every damn day. Sometimes the rainbow hair color is inspired by food. Other looks are created using nontraditional techniques, including but not limited to dripping, squirting on with water guns, or application while lying down. Three brands are typically credited for viral hairstylists' Technicolor success: Pulp Riot, Arctic Fox, and Trillion Tones.
These indie hair-color brands are creating some of the most vivid dyes on the market. Since launching, they've risen through the ranks to that of larger cosmetic companies like Manic Panic, Pravana, and Redken — and in no small part thanks to Instagram. I talked to the founders of each brand about how they started, how the social media platform helped accelerate their growth, and what they believe the future of rainbow hair holds.
With nearly 700,000 followers on Instagram, rainbow hair has quickly become synonymous with Pulp Riot. The hair-care brand has lit up Instagram's rainbow-hair community in a major way. When it launched a handful of fluorescent dyes last summer, trends like neon peach started taking over Explore pages. A year has passed, and the Neon Electric line has yet to lose power.
Two years ago, husband-and-wife duo Alexis and David Thurston launched Pulp Riot's first color line. As owners of the popular Butterfly Loft Salon in Encino, California, they had a reputation for creating rainbow-hair looks before Pulp Riot was even a figment of their imaginations. Alexis Thurston even considered herself a walking advertisement for bright dye jobs, frequently changing up her hair color with bold shades. They became so well known for their colorful techniques that they started Butterfly Circus, an independent education group that travels around the world teaching classes to local colorists.
Through all this, the couple realized creating their own brand was more of a means to an end than fulfilling a dream. "We were seeing not only with the stylists at our salon but also with the stylists that we would work with all over the nation doing educational events that they weren’t happy with the color product they were using," Alexis Thurston tells Allure. "There was dissatisfaction — whether it be the vibrancy, the consistency, or the fade." From there, Alexis and David Thurston decided they wanted to produce a color line and do it better than what was available at the time.
For about a year, they tested out formulations with the same people they hoped would use the final product every day: the nearly 70 stylists on staff at their salon. Both Alexis and David Thurston believe this has given Pulp Riot the ultimate advantage. Their stylists are able to easily pick up on the nuances and tweaks that need to be made to the formulas that someone who works in an office every day might not be able to.
A lot of people end up liking the fade more than when it's vibrant.
Throughout the process, stylists paid attention to the consistency of the dye and its fade. The Thurstons were focused on creating something that was easy for them to work with and didn't wash out over time into a muddy shade. "The colors fade true to tone and into pastel versions of themselves," David Thurston says. "A lot of people end up liking the fade more than when it's vibrant." He points out that stylists on Instagram often share pictures of faded looks, not as a before picture, but to showcase how well their work has held up.
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With the first line of colors, Pulp Riot focused on basics beyond the typical blonde, brunette, black, and red. "We felt like we needed to give the proper paint to stylists so they could have a complete color box," David Thurston says. "And since then, the strategy has been to fill in the gaps." As mentioned, the Neon Electric line dropped last summer, and he teased that Pulp Riot is following up the fluorescent shades with darker, grungier ones next month. I ask him if any of the new shades will have the same viral effect as Lava, the neon orange behind the neon-peach trend, and he quickly calls out Nevermore, a rich purple. With this in mind, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more purple hair trends like "smoked velvet" fill up our Instagram feeds this fall.
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And Instagram obviously plays a major part in the creation and growth of Pulp Riot, too. "Social media has been the microphone that we use to reach the hearts of stylists and salon owners across the world," David Thurston says. "It’s also allowed us to grow within the U.S. a lot more quickly, particularly with new product launches. Within a second, most of the beauty community knows something new is coming." And as they expand to other parts of the world, Instagram comes in handy for spreading the word about their arrival. "In the past, brands would have to spend time building from scratch in a new country," he adds. "But for us and our social media following, we arrive and they already know who we are. They welcome us with open arms, and we are able to grow a lot quicker than if we didn't have that. It’s played a real critical role."
Our goal is to continue to break down those barriers so that it’s perfectly natural to see anyone with blonde, brown, pink, or green hair.
With rainbow hair itself relying on Instagram for its growth and normalization, David and Alexis Thruston believe a culture shift is happening. Younger and older people alike are dyeing their hair bright colors. They're also more accepted in the workplace. You can even see it on the cover of Allure. "Our goal is to continue to break down those barriers so that it’s perfectly natural to see anyone with blonde, brown, pink, or green hair," David Thurston says. "Any color is acceptable. We’re also trying to bring that to all four corners of the world. We hope to influence that culture shift in other parts of the world."
Ryan Morgan was helping Kristen Leanne dye her hair while I interviewed them over the phone. The married couple decided to start Arctic Fox four years ago because they genuinely love coloring their own hair. Unlike the pair behind Pulp Riot, neither Morgan nor Kristen Leanne has a professional background in hairstyling. They haven't worked in a salon or gone to hair school. Instead, they're just providing a vibrant color line that you can use at home, because that's what they've always done (and always will do). Before Instagram was even a thing, rainbow hair was a staple in their lives.
In fact, Kristen Leanne dyed her hair for the first time when she was 13 with Kool-Aid. She later graduated to actual hair dyes, but the brands available didn't fit her expectations. They bled down her neck, didn't last long, and many were tested on animals. So she teamed up with her husband to fill that void with Arctic Fox's cruelty-free formula that doesn't bleed as much, fades beautifully, and acts as a mask while it processes. Plus, 15 percent of its profits go to animal-rescue-focused charities like Second Chance Animal Shelter and International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Not everyone has the money to go to a stylist. It could cost a lot, and we didn’t have the money at the time when we launched the brand to go to a stylist.
The fact that it's an at-home rainbow hair dye is essential to the brand. "Not everyone has the money to go to a stylist," Morgan says. "It could cost a lot, and we didn’t have the money at the time when we launched the brand to go to a stylist." Stylists have started using it on their clients, too. "We love what pros can create with the product, but we wanted to make something that consumers could get their hands on, experiment, and create with as well," he adds.
Oh yeah, and they are beauty influencers. With that in mind, Kristen Leanne also wanted to be able to offer something that everyone in her fan base could get a hold of, something that wouldn't overlap with her makeup brand partnerships. "We built the brand around social media," she tells Allure. "Our followers are really involved in our shade creation. They actually named quite a few of the shades that we’ve got. We keep them really involved and keep that family vibe going."
However, Morgan says they didn't have the huge following they have now when they launched Arctic Fox. "I think we’ve grown organically together along the way," he adds. Kristen Leanne adds that she only had 100,000 followers on Instagram at the time.
It makes my heart happy. I want people to be colorful.
Now that rainbow hair is poppin', Kristen Leanne feels like a proud mom. "It makes my heart happy," she says. "I want people to be colorful." To make the dyes even more accessible, Arctic Fox just landed on shelves at Sally Beauty, and Arctic Locks, high-quality platinum-blonde clip-in hair extensions, recently launched. "My fans who don't want to commit to having colored hair or can’t because of a job can buy those, DIY their own color melts, and clip them in," Kristen Leanne explains. "You can have that fun color without actually bleaching."
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Kristen Leanne dwells on the fact that some people, especially in the service industry, can't have colorful hair because of their jobs. She's even written letters of concern to businesses that ban bold hair color for their employees. They usually go along the lines of this: "I’m not sure how you think it makes me feel when I have a whole head of color, a bunch of tattoos, and a throat tattoo and I come in here and spend my hard-earned money, but then you’ve got people you’re forcing to cover up their tattoos and not color their hair," she says. "That doesn't make me feel great as a patron of your restaurant or establishment. I think it sends the wrong message." Because she sells bright hair dyes, she feels obligated to be an advocate for it.
Even if rainbow hair didn't become so widespread, the couple still would have run with Arctic Fox. "Ryan and I are the types of people that we’re always going to believe that it’s going to work until it just doesn’t," Kristen Leanne says. "We’re overly ambitious, and we're determined to make it work and make it as much of a thing as possible."
Before the term "influencer" was even in the zeitgeist, Rebecca Taylor was a MySpace queen. The stylist built a following for her Technicolor hair looks. As social media evolved to Facebook and Instagram, she steadily carried over her rainbow hair fantasy to each platform, not losing steam for even a millisecond. Because of this, Finnish hair-care company Sim Sensitive took notice.
For about eight years, the family-owned brand's chemist, Kaisa Leppälä, worked on a revolutionary hair-color formula that would allow colorists to custom-mix their own dyes that simultaneously lift and deposit color without lightening. Before bringing it to the market, Sim Sensitive decided to partner with someone with clout and in-salon experience, and Taylor was its first choice. Two years ago, the company invited her to come to Finland to meet its team, tour its lab, and give her their new formula to try out. After playing with it, Taylor agreed to collaborate with the brand, suggesting changes to make the dye even better. The final product, Trillion Tones, launched this March.
If it’s something I’m going to be behind, it’s going to be something that’s going to impact the industry…and not just some other dye.
But this wasn't the first time a brand had ever reached out to Taylor to create her own color line. She's received a couple other offers that she says didn't feel right. "I didn’t want to just slap my name on something I wasn’t really, really proud of just because this was something I'd always dreamed of doing," she tells Allure. "If it’s something I’m going to be behind, it’s going to be something that’s going to impact the industry and make stylists’ lives easier, allow them to be creative, have it be something innovative, and not just some other dye." Also, the formula comes with a laundry list of ethical elements that she's proud of: It's vegan, gluten-free, cruelty-free, and paraphenylenediamine-free, making it less likely to provoke an allergic reaction in people.
You’re kind of a little alchemist because you mix it however you want to mix it.
Unlike most dyes available, Trillion Tones isn't premixed and doesn't require you to mix it with developer. Instead, it's what Taylor calls the first hybrid hair color. "The stylist creates their own category, so it’s not just direct dye, just permanent, or just demi," she explains. "All the components of the color line are broken down." To put it simply, in a way that even me, a person who has only dyed a one-inch section of my naturally brown hair fire-engine red, the components are as follows: pigment, ammonia strength, and developer.
Within the pigment part, stylists create their own custom color from scratch with primary colors, as well as black, brown, and white. That's where the name Trillion Tones comes from. Then with the ammonia strength and developer components, you can vary the proportions to create different dye strengths. "You’re kind of a little alchemist because you mix it however you want to mix it," Taylor says. "That in itself is unique. No color line out there is like that." This has given stylists like Roxie Jane Hunt, Kristina Cheeseman, Caitlin Ford, and Caitlin Tcyzka freedom to create some of the most innovative looks you'll find on Instagram. Ford, in particular, recently raved that the line makes rainbow hair so much more accessible for her clients, both cost- and time-wise.
And as mentioned, the color can be directly added to even the darkest hair, and it will appear without any bleaching. Taylor is fully aware that technology like this already exists from other brands, but she points out that the colors available are usually bright red or eggplant. They're nothing like the bright yellows and oranges you can create with Trillion Tones on brunettes. This feature also allowed Taylor to recently dye a Finnish woman's calf-length hair rainbow in just four hours. With other dyes, the process would have taken several sessions over 30 hours, she notes.
Even if you don't have dark hair, bleaching your hair to experiment with rainbow colors is necessary to make the colors look as bright as possible. However, Taylor believes more and more people will start seeking out Trillion Tones when they get fed up with the damaging effects of lighteners because it's a healthy alternative that still allows people to have fun with color.
We aren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel, but it’s definitely been more mainstream.
Taylor agrees that Instagram has made rainbow hair more popular than ever before. "It’s been around since the 1970s, 1980s, even back in the 1950s and 1960s," she says. "We aren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel, but it’s definitely been more mainstream. I [attribute] that to social media and what we’re being exposed to." And she doesn't see it going anywhere anytime soon. It's just going to keep evolving with brands like Trillion Tones and becoming more elevated.
Instagram has also helped spur the careers of hairstylists passionate about rainbow hair. "Anything is possible in the industry now," Taylor says. And she's proof that stylists from all over the country, no matter where they are from, can build followings and eventually partner up with brands. "None of that would have been possible without me marketing myself with social media," she adds. And she believes it's helped rainbow hair become a more mainstream choice.
Taylor grew up in conservative Pensacola, Florida. Those with colorful hair were often seen as degenerates or punks. "But I was always drawn to it because I felt like you could do anything with hair color," she says. After going to hair school, she started working a Regis Salon in her local mall. Because it didn't carry a hair-color brand that made bright colors, Taylor would have to source the dyes herself if one of her clients asked for them. She'd run down to Hot Topic to pick up Manic Panic and Splat. Then she started posting pictures of the looks she created on MySpace, and the rest is history. "It started with people laughing at me and saying you’re never going to make a living doing this to moving out to West Hollywood a couple years ago and now doing this line," she says.
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