Getting boxed color from the local drug store was something I did all the time before I became a licensed stylist. It's still a totally acceptable choice, and sometimes a necessary one, to supplement your next salon appointment with a quick box of color and get that root coverage. But when it comes to highlighting your own hair, well, the stakes are much higher.
We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't offer up the safest way to highlight your hair at home, but we also wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't give you a fair warning about everything that can go wrong when you try to DIY highlights. Highlighting is not something a professional colorist, myself included, would ever advise you to do from home. It's a multi-step process that requires a lot of detailed attention and a careful, watchful eye (and hand) every step of the way. One wrong move could cost you good hair for years (if you over-process your hair for example, that'll lead to breakage. If you under-process, you could be left with a more orange than blonde tone.) Those who want to lighten their hair more than one or two shades definitely shouldn't try this one at home, and there are still plenty of risks for those who just want to touch-up existing highlights at home.
Long story short, a lot can go wrong and experts definitely don't recommend that you highlight your hair yourself. But with that being said, if you've already made up your mind that you're giving this a try, we want you to at least do it as safely as possible. Since experts agree that it isn't safe for those who want to lighten all of their hair more than two shades at home, this tutorial will focus on how those with existing highlights (or hair color in the blonde family) can touch-up their color by highlighting only where the hair parts and the pieces that frame the face. So without further ado, ahead find a step-by-step guide to highlighting your hair at home; just proceed with caution and bear our warnings in mind.
Meet the Expert
- KC Carhart is a celebrity colorist at Chris McMillan Salon in Beverly Hills, CA. She travels around the country to cities like Portland, San Francisco, and New York City offering natural looking highlights favored by celeb clients Debra Messing, Laura Dern and Priyanka Chopra.
- Cara Craig is one of the leading colorists at Suite Caroline Salon in Soho, NY. She's known for her adventurous color jobs and effortless blondes. She is also the co-founder of Preview Wear hair accessories.
Consult With Your Colorist
Cara Craig of NYC's Suite Caroline salon does warn us that when taking matters into your own hands, "you are headed into the territory of unknown outcomes." Craig cautions that when highlighting your hair at home, you could end up with a completely different color (because the box photos are never the same IRL), or you might end up with very weird placement, a blonde that is way too warm and doesn't match the rest of your hair, or color that is way too dark... just to name a few. "The possibilities of it looking bad are endless," she says. "I stay in touch with my clients and will troubleshoot their individual situations. My advice would be to communicate with your colorist and get their recommendation. They know you and your hair."
If you can't wait for a professional to do the job for you, you need to at least talk with one first. Consulting your colorist will not only help you to gain some sort of understanding on what you're about to do, but it's an opportunity to collaboratively come up with a strategic approach. Trust me when I tell you, your colorist would rather help you come up with a plan to get by between appointments than have you come in for a color correction with no articulate memory of what you did behind closed doors.
Some brands, like L'Oreal's Color & Co, will offer a free consultation with a professional colorist to help you take your best step forward with at-home hair color. Even if you don't have a trusted go-to colorist, if there's someone you love following on Instagram, or a color brand you're leaning towards using, send them a DM asking for advice. Most in-person consults are going to be free of charge anyway, so asking over e-mail or online is no different so long as they have a good photo of your current color, preferably in natural lighting. The goal all professionals have at the end of the day is to make a contribution to good hair, and to help people feel their best!
Find Your Color Kit
After talking with a pro, you should have gathered some good information to help you move forward, such as your current base color or level, and potentially even a specific product recommendation. Now there are two ways to touch up your highlights:
The first way is with a single process color. That means you have one color application, rinse, and you're done. Normally, single process color is best for an all-over change, or for root touch-ups to conceal gray hair. If your hair is light enough, you may be able to pull this off (with your colorist's blessing, of course). If you go the single process color route, be sure to use a semi- or demi- permanent color to help your color fade over time versus leave a longer lasting stain on the hair that will create more work to correct later. A single process is realistically only going to alter the shade of your hair one to two levels, which will be easier for lighter base colors that are already within the dark blonde family. If your natural base color is super dark, this isn't going to be your route to lighter strands. Remember, "this is more of get-you-by-til-your-colorist-can-see-you tutorial," says KC Carhart of Chris McMillan salon, "not the time to see if you look good as a DIY blonde." Since this option doesn't entail any bleach, "you'd have to work pretty hard to burn your hair off," Craig tells us. So at least that rules out one of the many potential risks.
All highlighting that's done in the salon is typically done with bleach. Bleaching is more likely to cause serious damage if you aren't careful, such as burning the hair off as Craig referenced above. When you use bleach, it's considered a double process job because there are two steps involved to get your desired outcome: bleaching and toning. The bleach is going to strip your strands of its current shade, lifting color out a few levels lighter, and the toner is going to then re-deposit the desired tone. It's a much more intensive process for beginners, let alone for doing it yourself at home with no assistance. Even in the salon, it's pretty rare to find a professional using this method without an extra set of hands assisting them, so let that be telling of why this method isn't typically advised for DIY.
Before resorting to touching up your own highlights at home, try an at-home gloss or toning treatment first. While they won't lighten your roots, they can help tone down unwanted brassiness between appointments, improving the overall look of your highlights. Team Byrdie loves the Matrix Total Results So Silver Mask ($24) and the Kristin Ess Signature Gloss in Winter Wheat ($14).
Gather Your Materials
Go to (or order online from) a beauty supply store like Sally's to gather your supplies, or see if your colorist can order materials for you and you can reimburse them through Venmo (if you do something like this, I'd suggest including a tip.)
Most single process touch-ups are going to come in a box or kit that includes everything for you: Your gloves, instructions, mixing solutions, and application bottle. Again, I will emphasize not to get started with a single process color just because it seems easy and straightforward. You must make sure this is advice straight from your colorist. Carhart reminds us, "it could be 10 times harder and at least twice as expensive later for your colorist to fix box dyes."
For a double process bleach-and-tone, your materials should include:
- A color brush
- A small mixing bowl
- Some foil. Carhart suggests using kitchen foil and cutting into 4" x 6" rectangles
- A rat tail comb
- Latex gloves
- A color cape or towel and clip
When choosing a peroxide, Carhart says to keep it "low low low!" Keeping a low volume will help ensure you don't fry your hair off, and it leaves more hope for your colorist to fix any potential mistakes made. "We can't reattach your hair if it's been broken off!" says Carhart. "If your hair is naturally light (blonde to light brown), 10vol is the highest you should go," she advises. A level 10 volume peroxide will lift 1 level lighter and a level 20 volume will safely lift two. "If your hair is naturally darker (medium brown to black), use 20vol."
Mix your bleach and peroxide into a thick, but blended consistency. You do not want it to be too runny or soupy. Make sure your gloves are on even while mixing. If bleach touches the skin, it will burn. Bleach will stain your clothes too, so be sure to put your cape on for protection right away.
Perform a Strand Test
A strand test is when you take a small sliver of hair and apply your color solution to see how it turns out before going all in. Before you do this, make sure your hair is clean. You want clean hair that's product-free so there isn't any buildup or barrier on your strands that inhibit penetration.
If you do a strand test, specifically with bleach, be sensitive to maintaining your foil placement. Try to get a good look at the strand to gauge if it's the level of brightness you were expecting, but be sure to leave your foil in place until it's time to remove and rinse. "[Strand tests] could cause bleed marks if people are removing the foil and trying to put the hair back in," says Carhart. "I would just open the foil slightly and look at it. When it looks yellow or pale yellow, it’s ready. The quickness or slowness of the chemical reaction will depend entirely on the individual," she explains. "Typically, light hair lifts faster and dark hair lifts slower."
If you're doing a full bleach and tone, you can test your entire process on this strand. It sounds like a lot of extra work, and it is! But better to make the time and risk a single strand that can easily be hidden, versus going in at the roots that are most visible only to realize it was not at all what you expected. The key to checking your strand test according to Carhart is "minimal touching."
Choose Your Method
There are a lot of ways to physically highlight the hair. When you go to the salon, your stylist might use foils, they might do balayage (with a brush), or they may even backcomb your ends before using foils and then stick you under a dryer for an hour. None of that is going to happen for a home application.
Techniques like balayage and backcombing are meant to lighten the ends and highlight all-over. Plus, with those techniques, you don't need to have your ends touched up much at all. "I paint balayage highlights so the grow out is smooth and seamless," says Craig, "so a few more months of roots won't be the end of the world. Your hair probably looks good."
Remember: this tutorial is a last resort to save you between visits. You will only be dealing with your roots.
With that in mind, Carhart suggests using a foil technique for bleaching. The amount of time you leave it on for will be dependent upon your colorist's advice. But you can check the foils every 5-10 minutes to see how it's lifting (with minimal touching, of course).
If you decide to use a single process color kit or a one-step tool, like dpHUE's Blonding Brush ($28), simply follow the directions that come in the packaging.
Section Your Hair
Per Carhart's advice, you're going to start by clipping your hair into three sections: the two sides (from the back of the ear, forward) and the back. Even though you're sectioning all of your hair, "I would recommend doing as little as possible," she says. "Only highlight the “T-zone” where you part your hair and around the face." That back section can basically be clipped away safely.
Though you'll only doing a minimal amount of upkeep, keeping all of your hair sectioned keeps you organized and helps to avoid any unnecessary messes or unwanted mess-ups. After your strand test has shown promise, you can do one or two layers of foils in the "T-zone" as KC suggests, right at the surface of your parting.
"While I would avoid doing this in general," says Carhart, "I would avoid going near the back of the head at all costs." The parting area and hairline are the only working zones. Sectioning is only meant to keep your work area clean and organized.
Paint Your Strands
Since every single process application is going to have unique directions of their own, and likely a user-friendly applicator, we're going to use this space to discuss how to achieve a highlight touch-up by using the foil method that Carhart suggested.
You're going to start wherever your natural parting is, either on the side or down the middle. "Begin by slicing super fine sections (like, see-through!) using your tail comb to weave some pieces of hair out," says Carhart. Place the thinly sectioned hairs onto your foil, and stretch them down taut against your head. Use your brush to gather a scoop of your bleach mixture and firmly press it down onto your strands as if you were painting a thick stroke of acrylic paint with a paintbrush. You want it to be rich and thick but still spread out into an even layer. You shouldn't need too much since the sections you're working with are so fine. "Paint the bleach on your roots and avoid overlapping onto the blonde from your previous color job," says Carhart.
When it comes time to apply around the hairline, take a fine slice of hair out using your tail comb and weave the same way Carhart advised with the parting. Then, place a foil against your forehead or cheek, and lay the finely sliced hair on top of the foil. "Make sure to saturate, but not over saturate. Then fold the bottom of the foil to meet the top, and corner in the tops of the sides a little bit so the foil doesn’t slip." Don't be too shy with saturation either. If your application isn't saturated, you'll have a splotchy, spotty-looking bleach job.
While Carhart thinks that the hairline is the easiest to do yourself, she warns that it still requires some serious hand-eye coordination. "If you have never mastered how to curl your own hair, then highlighting at home is definitely not for you."
The most important part of applying your bleach is to ensure it does not touch the scalp. "Try to get about 1/4 inch away from the root because bleach will expand," Carhart explains. "If it does, and you see the product seeping out when you close the foil, you will have what's called a bleed mark (more commonly known as a cheetah spot)." If bleach touches the scalp or skin, rinse the area immediately.
Any hard to reach areas, Carhart simply says, "Don't do them."
Apply Your Toner
The toner's job is to neutralize the intense yellow shade that appears from bleaching and make it look more natural. This is the secret sauce that eliminates brassiness and other unwanted tones to help you reach your desired outcome.
When it comes to your toner, "keep it simple," says Carhart. "Ideally I would try and take the foils out at a place where you don’t need a toner. If your hair is blonde, this is much easier. You wait until the highlights are a pretty color and then you take the foils off. If you’re a brunette, you need to pay closer attention."
Carhart tell us that the "sweet spot" for darker brunettes is 2-3 shades lighter than their natural color. The safer, low volume peroxide that we're working with for these at-home touch ups will only lift you 1-2 shades lighter. So if you've been highlighting for a while and working with your colorist to go blonder from a super dark natural base color, you're better off resorting to throwing on a baseball cap and hiding those roots. If you're a dark brunette that only needs a light touch-up at the roots, just be sure not to overlap the bleach onto your previous color job as Carhart warned before. The overlap could cause a funky color spot, or potential breakage.
The potential of leaving the bleach on too long could also create a problem for your toning approach. "If you open the foil and the hair looks kinda red/orange, you’re too late," Carhart warns us. The color you want to see before you remove the foils to rinse is yellow. After the bleach has been thoroughly rinsed out, you'll apply your toner.
Follow Up With a Deep Conditioning Treatment
After any color treatment or chemical treatment that heightens the hair's porosity levels, you want to be sure you're upping the conditioner and getting extra moisture back into the hair. You'll notice, especially after using bleach, that your hair feels straw-like, brittle, and extremely dried out, so a good conditioning treatment is crucial.
Turn to your conditioner after your toner is completely rinsed out and you've shampooed your hair. If you followed Carhart's advice and passed on the toner, you could use a product like Davines Alchemic Conditioners in Silver, Golden, or Tobacco ($31) and let that serve as your mild toner. That way, you don't have to put yourself at risk of pulling the foils off too late. Blue conditioners will help neutralize the warmth if your hair pulls more orange, and purple conditioners will are going to help neutralize on the cooler side. Otherwise, any deep conditioning treatment will work. Virtue's Conditioning Masque ($30) is another great option and will help restore your hair from the inside out.
You don't want to skip this step! It'll add a boost of shine and softness to your strands that will help you feel like you just left the salon. Keep up this treatment until you lose that straw-like feeling when shampooing.
Blow Dry and Cross Check
Now it's time to see your best efforts in action. Blow dry around the hairline and parting first, even if you didn't do a bleach-and-tone. Once you're 80-90 percent dry, grab a round brush or flat brush to help you smooth out the hair. Using a smoothing nozzle or concentrator will also help you get the hair to a place where you can see things clearly.
If you notice any trouble areas, get your hair fully dried and smoothed out before contacting your colorist in a panic. You'll want to provide another photo in good natural lighting and the blow dry will help display things clearly. Worst case scenario, you'll be back to square one, waiting for a pro, only this time it will be for a color correction. But if you're extremely cautious and vigilant in following the steps above, you might just pass with flying color.