I often joke that I was emotionally scarred for life when I had the majority of my hair bleached off my head years ago, but to be honest, I’m not entirely kidding. In the days and weeks afterward, I was so distraught, embarrassed, and just plain crushed, that I almost wasn’t able to get out of bed in the morning. But, here we are. It’s been years since “the bleach apocalypse of 2013,” which begs the question: Why am I still talking about it? As I happily reported in my initial article, I’ve slowly but surely nursed my hair back to health and I haven’t had a harrowing salon session since. Yet to this day, I still have some aesthetic response symptoms from the ordeal (yes, still), and I receive DMs and Facebook messages on a daily basis from people who have read my story and are in the exact panic-stricken position I was years ago.
Having access to some of the best products, treatments, and colorists in the business, I thought a sequel was in order: The comprehensive tip and product sheet I wish I had nearly a decade ago—and an update on my current hair situation. So naturally, I booked an appointment with my celebrity colorist soulmate, Tabitha Dueñas, who successfully gifted me with the Julianne Hough–esque baby blonde strands of my dreams (sans any damage), as well as tapped stylists Danny Jelaca and Sheridan Ward for their industry expertise.
Meet the Expert
- Tabitha Dueñas is a celebrity colorist at West Hollywood’s Nine Zero One Salon, which caters to blonde beauties such as Julianne Hough and Emma Roberts. With over a decade of experience, she has worked many New York Fashion Week shows.
- Danny Jelaca is a hairstylist who boasts a client roster featuring the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Naomi Campbell.
- Sheridan Ward is a stylist who works with Michelle Williams.
Ahead, find the exact products, treatment schedules, and tips for how to take care of bleached hair.
Alternate Your Shampoo and Conditioner
When it comes to recovering or maintaining the integrity of blonde hair, finding a happy and healthy medium between protein and moisture is the name of the game. It’s what I relied on back in 2013, and if you took a peek into my current shower situation, you’d see it’s still my M.O.
“Alternating between moisture and protein—and not overdosing on either—is the most important thing when it comes to caring for blonde hair no matter how long it’s been since your last appointment or how severe any damage is,” Dueñas explained to me as I sat in her chair. “I also personally recommend finding shampoos and conditioners that are free of sulfates, which can eventually strip and dry out the hair. The ultimate shampoo ritual will be alternating between a sulfate-free, protein-rich formula and a sulfate-free, moisture-rich formula.”
To meet my hydration needs, I’ve been using Verb’s Hydrating Shampoo ($20) and Conditioner ($20) for a few months now, and I can honestly say it’s the best I’ve tried when it comes to delivering the nourishment and hydration my bleached strands crave without the heavily coated, limp feel of so many other shampoos and conditioners.
Use Purple Shampoo
Not only is it hard to keep blonde hair healthy, but it’s also difficult to stave off that almost-inevitable brassiness. If you’re on major damage control, a purple shampoo isn’t a must, but if your blonde hair is on the healthier side and you’re looking to maintain the tone as much as possible post-salon visit, consider adding a purple shampoo to the mix—but be careful of adding too much.
“Purple shampoo can actually change the color of your blonde if you use it too often or too soon after your color session since the hair will be especially porous and absorbent. If you only wash your hair a couple of times a week, I recommend waiting two weeks before incorporating a purple shampoo to preserve your tone. Then only use it every few washes,” notes Dueñas.
Bet On a Bond Builder
In my previous article, I mentioned going into the salon and getting both moisturizing and protein treatments. I still think this can be a helpful step following a damaging color process, but as Dueñas points out, at-home treatments and masks are so high quality these days that going into the salon might not be completely necessary.
Instead, she recommends asking your stylist to use Olaplex during the color process (No. 1 and No. 2 are done in-salon and help rebuild and reverse damage and breakage as your hair sits) and picking up a bottle of No. 3 ($28) to take home with you.
Don't Overdo the Bleach
“Overlapping the bleach is the most common reason for disastrous damage,” says Dueñas. And apparently, this was likely the main culprit behind my previous bleaching disaster. (The stylist had applied bleach over my entire head right after a full highlight the same day). However, Dueñas also shares the importance of minding your hairline (where we have super-fine hairs) and being mindful of how long the color is sitting on each section of the hair.
In addition to the Olaplex treatment, Dueñas also stresses the importance of incorporating a high-quality mask into your hair care regimen. Again, you never want to overdo it with these types of products, but they can make a big difference in maintaining the integrity of your hair. To achieve salon-like results at home, she recommends applying your mask to damp, freshly shampooed hair, combing it through to ensure even dispersal, and then throwing a shower cap over it for about 20 minutes.
In addition to using the No. 3 Olaplex once every week or two before you shampoo, Dueñas suggests alternating between a protein and moisture mask in lieu of your normal conditioner. After a few months, you can wean yourself off the protein pick (Davines' Hair Building Pack, $39) has been a personal lifesaver) and stick to just using the moisturizing option (Dueñas likes L’Oréal Professionnel's Liss Unlimited Smoothing Mask, $40) once every few washes.
Don't Skip Haircuts
Though Dueñas says you can probably skip coming to the salon for a treatment, she doesn’t recommend skipping a cut. In fact, she tells me that losing some length is one of the only things you can really do to help salvage the hair—especially after a harsh color treatment. Her rule of thumb: Get a cut or trim immediately (or at least within a week) after getting your hair colored to seal the ends. Then make it a habit to come in about every eight weeks or so afterward.
“An analogy I always use about hair is that it’s like a rope. Once the ends have been torn or damaged, they’ll start to unravel. The same goes for your hair—once your ends are compromised, that damage will continue to work its way up the strand, and there’s really no product or remedy that can truly seal that. A cut is the only option,” says Dueñas.
Style With Care
This one might not come as a surprise, but it’s important nonetheless—be mindful of your ponytail habit. Not only can pulling a ponytail too tight (or wearing one to bed) cause breakage around the hairline, but it can also weaken the section of the hair secured with the tie.
Use Multi-Tasking Formulas
When it comes to caring for damaged hair, a simple styling strategy will ultimately be in your hair’s best interest. Therefore, finding quality products that can kill two (or three or four) birds with one stone is key. To keep it simple—and damaged hair happy—Dueñas recommends using Unite’s 7Seconds Detangler ($33). “It does everything,” she says. “It gives shine, it detangles, it’s a heat protectant, and yet it’s lightweight enough so that it’s pretty impossible to overdo it. You can be quite liberal with it and it’s one of the best things you can put in your hair.”
Hair Oil is Your New Best Friend
The only other product Dueñas really recommends as you nurse your bleached hair back to health? A high-quality clear oil like Luseta Beauty Marula Oil Hair Treatment ($28). Unlike other oils like argan (which can be tinged yellow and might stain bleached hair), Dueñas tells me that marula oil has the unique capability of penetrating deep into the hair’s cuticle for ultimate healing and repair. So in addition to spritzing in a do-it-all leave-in like Luseta Beauty's, Dueñas also suggests running two to three drops of oil through damp ends post-wash and pre-style, as well.
Although my colorist back in 2013 should never (and I mean never) have bleached right on top of my highlights, I still partly take the blame. I had been getting my hair highlighted for long enough that I knew how damaging and irreversible the consequences could be, and yet I let my impatience get the better of me. I wanted a fix right then, and the colorist picked up on that panic. Which led to her panic, which then led to a whole lot of inappropriately applied bleach, which ultimately led to the mother of all panic: horribly damaged hair. (So not worth it).
“If you have just received a lightening service and you’re not happy with the color or something needs to be adjusted, it’s best to wait at least a couple of weeks so that your hair can get a break—you just can’t highlight your hair so close together in time. Instead, wait it out and then go back and see what the options are for color adjustment without using bleach. There are plenty of ammonia-free options that can brighten or change the tone,” says Dueñas.
After you’ve gotten your hair back to a healthy place, aim to alternate full and partial highlights with six to eight weeks in between.
Use a Shower Filter
Sorry, but if you have blonde hair, water can be the most frustrating of enemies, thanks to grime, minerals, and chemicals that might expedite brassiness, dehydration, and breakage. So, after a colorist in my college hometown recommended using a filter in my shower (more than once) to preserve my hair’s color and integrity, I made the leap and have been a believer in the investment ever since. Nine Zero One has an amazing option called the Raindrops Luxe ($120), which boasts a thorough, six-step filtration system and an easy-breezy setup.
Small traces of chlorine can be removed with a filter, but if you're going for a swim, make sure to rinse hair afterward. The chlorine in pools can damage and discolor bleached hair and is, therefore, best avoided.
Sleep On a Silk Pillowcase
In all honesty, I didn’t believe the hype of a silk pillowcase until I tried it. Yes, this Slip Silk Pillowcase ($89) is an investment, but it’s a worthy one where your hair is concerned, especially if you have super-lightened strands. Made from the highest-grade mulberry silk, this kind of pillowcase wins out over cotton cases of hair nightmares past, as it lets your hair slip and slide over the case instead of stretching, pulling, and breaking. Not only do my blowouts last longer since making the switch, but I’ve noticed significantly fewer broken-off hairs around my hairline.
Stretch Out Washes With Dry Shampoo
Dry shampoo is particularly key in the first three weeks after your treatment, as the hair is already weak and susceptible to breakage, and shampoo tends to strip the cuticle even more. Ward recommends shampooing every three to four days, tops. Stretch out washes as long as possible with dry shampoo.
Keep up With the Conditioning
This doesn't mean you should abandon your haircare entirely. In fact, make up for your lack of shampoo with hydrating conditioners and masks. "The idea is to fill in the extra porosity of the hair with protein and moisture," says Jelaca. "This helps to rebuild strength." (And shine, too). The bottom line is that bleach leaves strands very dry, so don't skimp on a color-saving conditioner in the shower. The addition of a leave-in treatment on damp hair once a week will also help quench thirsty locks.
Have a Contingency Plan
If you absolutely must wash your hair in some form but find yourself reaching for the shampoo bottle way too often, it's time to invest in a natural, essential oil-based cleanser. You might know what we're referring to under the name "no-poo." It won't strip your hair in the same way a shampoo will, instead it just balances out the oils on your head. We particularly like Hairstory's New Wash.
Not all Towels are Created Equal
Investing in a microfiber towel is never a bad idea for any kind of hair (treated or untreated), since the ultra-soft, absorbent feel helps strands maintain their natural texture without frizzing or damage. But when your hair is especially at risk for breakage, it's essential. Just make sure to gently squeeze or scrunch your locks rather than rub them with the towel.
Tone it Up
It's important to use a purple shampoo and conditioner so your hair doesn't get brassy, but considering you'll be going days without washing your hair, you might also want to have something else on hand. Enter IGK's Mixed Feelings Drops, which you can add to nearly any hair product to get a little toning help. Put them in your conditioner, your mask, your leave-in treatment—wherever you can think of.
Watch Out For Heat
Using a straightener or curling on just-bleached hair is kind of like sunbathing when you already have a bad sunburn—you're exposing dry, vulnerable hair to even more damage. (In fact, avoid direct sun exposure for two weeks post-bleach to protect hair). Air-drying is the best way to go, but we understand that's not always realistic. If you must use heat tools, repeat after us: You will use a heat protectant. Even if you've used one before and didn't feel like it did much, they've come a long way in the past few years. We like Alterna's Caviar Bond Repair Leave-In Spray.
Invest in a Gloss
Not only will it help seal and protect the color, but it helps feign shine when hair isn't healthy enough to be glossy on its own, by smoothing out rough cuticles and filling in any holes. Typically stylists will add a glossing treatment at the salon (ask to be sure), but Rita Hazan's at-home product is a must-have for in-between visits.
Add a Little Shine
To the same end, you're going to need something on hand to add a little additional sparkle to dull hair. If your hair is on the mend, fake it till you make it with a shine spray.