Best Lighting for Salons (Specifically for Color)

Best Lighting for Salons (Specifically for Color)

When it comes to lighting for your salon, there is no singular “right way” to illuminate. There are, however, a multitude of options to consider for lighting your work environment.

Although it’s tempting to go for drama with little splashes of light to accent your salon or spa interior and give a beautiful ambiance, the reality is that you and your team need to be able to see what you are doing. That’s why it’s advised to go for the best possible illumination for hair color. After all, that’s one of the best profit centers in the salon, so it’s vital to “shine a light” on your handiwork. Before adding any illumination fixtures to your shopping cart though, let’s review a few lighting basics first.

It’s not just the amount of light that’s important, but also the quality and color temperature of the sources and how everything balances. Let’s break it down:

The Purpose of Lighting

Essentially, lighting fixtures in a salon will serve two purposes. One is to provide light, and the other is to look good and fit in with the salon décor. For this article, we’re only going to cover the practical side of lighting – the part that illuminates what you do for a living.

Classified by intended use, illumination is either accent, task or general lighting, depending mainly on the distribution of the light produced by the fixture. Accent lighting is typically decorative, intended to highlight specific elements of the interior, like a piece of artwork on a wall or a display. Accent lights generally provide minimal illumination and may be in place purely for decorative purposes. When it comes to lighting an overall facility, accent lights are typically the last element added.

Task lighting is mainly functional and is usually the most concentrated, and for specific purposes, such as cutting hair or applying color. Estheticians sometimes use a portable task light that is an illuminated ring around a magnifying lens. In tight quarters, this type of light is helpful for this specific purpose. For lighting hair, however, portable lights are not an option.

For task lighting for hair color, you want a relatively neutral light source with enough intensity to show detail within darker hair. Each light source or sources should illuminate a good portion of an individual work area without the service provider causing a shadow on the client while standing behind the chair. You’d also want to have some form of a task light illuminating your front desk and even your retail area. It’s essential that your retail is well illuminated, not just because it calls attention to the products, but so clients can read the labels.

General or ambient light fills in between the task and accent lighting and is intended for general illumination of your facility. There are several ways to add and control the ambient lighting in your salon but first a few other basics before discussing options.

Light Intensity

The intensity of a light source is the amount of light that emitted, which is measured in lumens. However, the amount of power that a light fixture uses is measured in watts. Until recently, we have been more familiar with wattage. For example, we all know what a standard 100-watt incandescent bulb looks like and have a general concept of how bright it will be but have no idea that it outputs 1600 lumens. That has changed with newer, more efficient light sources. Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) light sources use less wattage and therefore save money when it comes to power consumption. So, the equivalent for a 100-watt incandescent bulb would be a 16-20-watt, 1600 lumen (lm) LED source. The lumen rating, which is the true measure on intensity is starting to take hold.

The Color of Light

The visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is responsible for our sense of sight. With wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometers (nm), visible light resides between the invisible ultraviolet and infrared spectrums. Whether it’s the sun, incandescent or halogen bulbs, LED, CFL or even traditional fluorescent fixtures, each source of light radiates across various wavelengths. Measured in Kelvin (K), the “color temperature” of each light source ranges from warm to cool as the human eye perceives it. In the chart below you’ll see where some of the more common light sources fall on the Kelvin scale.

Temperature Source
1700 K Match flame
1850 K Candle flame, sunset/sunrise
2400 K Standard incandescent lamps
2550 K Soft white incandescent lamps
2700 K Soft white CFL and LED lamps
3000 K Warm white CFL and LED lamps
3200 K Tungsten photofloods
5000 K Horizon daylight
5000 K Tubular fluorescent lamps or cool white / daylight
5500 – 6000 K compact fluorescent lamps (CFL)
6200 K daylight, electronic flash
6500 K Xenon short-arc lamp
6500 – 9500 K Daylight, overcast
15,000 – 27,000 K LCD or CRT screen
Temperature Clear blue poleward sky

Most interior designers will tell you that you want warm lighting so that the environment looks inviting. For spas, treatment rooms, waiting areas, even the front desk, warmer lighting makes sense and does add to the overall ambiance. However, for any areas that you are cutting hair or doing color, you want more neutral lighting or a balance of warm and cool.

Why is the color of light important? If you are doing color, it’s imperative. When a salon does not have color-balanced lighting (and enough light intensity), colorists will find themselves taking their clients outside or into another part of the salon to view the color results in a better light.

Color Contamination

The salon environment is also a factor in doing hair color. The color of your ceiling and walls, window treatments and coatings, even the color of your workstations and the abundance of mirrors all affect the illumination in your salon. Warm walls, not to mention warm lighting, may cause a colorist to overcompensate and go cooler with their color applications. Take that same head of hair outside and yikes – too ashy or cool. The opposite happens with blue walls and/or cooler lighting. To compensate for the scene, a colorist might use additional warmth, and some clients discover more warmth than they’d like once they step outside. The best way to illuminate a salon for hair color is to have a good balance of color, intensity, and quality of that light.

The Quality of Light

Now that you have a basic understanding of color temperature let’s dive into the quality of light. Essentially there are two primary qualities of light: specular and diffuse.

A hard or specular light source such as a pinpoint source (think bare, unfrosted light bulb), creates deep shadows with a lot of contrast from the darkest shadow to the highlights. This type of a light source can make the color look more vibrant and, depending on the angle of the light, can accentuate shape and texture. However, having all hard or specular lighting is difficult to work with. It’s a great punch of light for work or task areas but should not be your only source on the subject.

Soft light is usually diffused through some sort of an augmenter. That physical enhancer can be haze in the atmosphere, sheer treatments on windows or translucent glass on or around an otherwise specular light source. Soft light can also be reflected light that is bounced off of a white wall, for example. If the wall is truly white, the light will be soft, as neutral as the source itself and will render soft shadows and lower contrast between highs and lows.

Soft light is best for ambient lighting such as a large bank of windows that get filtered light (not direct, harsh sunlight), lights bounced up into a white ceiling, for example, or larger white diffusion panels that the light travels through. In the photographic industry, they use a large diffusion panel to soften a harsh light source or bounce light into a white umbrella. These sources make for pleasant overall illumination.

Skylights are an excellent soft source of light. Most typically have a large panel of milk plexiglass, which allows the sunlight to travel through, but it scatters or diffuses the light for a less harsh effect. Skylights are a great way to bring up the ambient lighting in the salon, at least while there is daylight. The same thing with large banks of windows, especially if they span from floor to ceiling. Either way, at night, you’ll want to have some form of house lights that can help balance the ambiance for evening appointments.

So, what can you learn from this for your salon? It’s not just a bunch of lights that you turn on and do hair by; it’s the quality of those lights and how they affect the outcome for your hair color.

The key is to balance your lighting the best you can. Go for neutral walls and ceiling if you can and make the most of larger banks of windows and skylights as much as possible. Think of that as ambient light. From there add accents where you see fit, even if they run slightly warm or cool. It will all balance out later.  For those using natural light, keep in mind that cloudy days will cool the color of the light in your salon and nightfall will illuminate your ambient leaving you with just spotlights of color.

So, the suggestion is to have overall ambient light in the areas of the salon that lighting matters, stay neutral as much as possible with décor and then spotlight and accent as you see fit, which happen to be the lights that nicely accent your décor.

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