As the old saying goes, blondes supposedly have more fun—but truth be told, they also spend more money at the salon. Lightening your hair is a lot of upkeep. It means frequent trips to your colorist, more advanced haircare, and at least some damage (no matter what products you use). So how can we can have the joys of lighter hair without footing the bill for damaging foils?
The good news is there are a few natural remedies for lightening your hair at home (that professional colorists actually approve of). Off the bat, you should know that these methods aren't as powerful at lightening hair as bleach, but could still deliver the result you're looking for.
But first, let’s understand what we’re really asking here. Lighter hair isn’t as easy as grabbing an over-the-counter box dye, which is typically a great fallback for going darker or covering grays. Lightening hair is a trickier process because it involves opening up the hair shaft and lifting the current shade out. Think about this: when you stain your whites, you use bleach to help lift the stain out, right? Well, take that concept, add peroxide, and that's sort of what we’re dealing with when it comes to lightening hair.
Bleach breaks into the hair follicle while hydrogen peroxide, an oxidizing agent, strips away existing color. Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself at the shampoo bowl and been terrified at the bright yellow or orange color you see? Thankfully, toners are there to deposit the desired color or "tone" back into the hair before re-sealing the cuticle. It’s the bleach and peroxide together that do the heavy lifting. But bleach can leave the hair feeling brittle, and depending on the level of peroxide used, your hair can be left in pretty bad shape.
So before you resort to a pricy set of full highlights at the salon, try one of these six home remedies. We even turned to the colorists behind the strands of Martha Hunt, Ashley Tisdale and Khloe Kardashian.
Meet the Expert
- Anja Burton is a Los Angeles-based haircolorist at Ramirez Tran Salon. She's known for creating hair colors that take influence from "beach culture," creating foiled and hand-painted looks that mimic that of a surfer's.
- Ashley Schafer is a New York City-based colorist at Jenna Perry Hair. She specializes in soft, seamless highlights.
- Cara Craig is a colorist at Suite Caroline Salon in New York City. She is also the founder of hair accessories brand Preview Wear.
This might be one of the oldest tricks I’ve personally ever heard of. You've heard of '70s kids laying out in the sun with lemon juice on their hair and tanning oil on their already leathered skin, right? Thankfully, we now know to ditch the tanning oil for SPF, but the lemon on our hair remains. The acidity in lemon juice enables it to lift color by changing the hair’s pH levels, but it still needs a boost of heat for maximum impact. In terms of application, LA based colorist Anja Burton suggests the following:
"Squeeze lemon into a spray bottle and spray the strands of hair to mimic natural highlights. Let the strands dry in the sun. This technique usually only works on lighter hair tones. Avoid getting any lemon juice on your skin, it could burn with sun exposure.”
We’ve been advised to do an ACV rinse every once in a while to help strip our strands of build up and debris, but a prolonged rinse may actually strip our color too, making it a great natural lightener. Using vinegar as a lightener requires extreme caution because too much can in fact be damaging. If your hair is super fine or already in a brittle state, this may not be the natural cure for you. If your hair is on the thicker side and in a healthy state, just be sure to dilute your vinegar with water at a 50/50 ratio. "Brunettes have a tendency to pull orange tones," explains NY based colorist Ashley Schafer. To avoid unwanted warmth, brunettes can try using white vinegar to pull cooler tones. Blondes, same goes for you if you desire cool tones, but apple cider vinegar is your best bet if you’re looking for more warmth.
The main component in honey that works in our hair brained favor is an enzyme called glucose oxidase. Its purpose is to break down sugars and to serve as a protectant from spoiling. But when you add water to honey, which could cause it to spoil, the enzyme actually generates trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide! On its own, honey can take a while to kick in as a lightening agent. Certain spices such as cinnamon or cardamom may work alongside honey’s peroxide properties to help activate an added boost.
When applying your honey mix, slather it onto damp hair so the water helps kick things into gear. To keep the hair wet and contained, twist it up into a bun and cover it with a shower cap. You’ll want to keep the hair coated anywhere from 1 to 4 hours depending on how light you’re trying to go and how dark your existing color is. Again, heat can help speed things up so whip out the blowdryer and apply some heat to your shower cap every now and then while you let it sit.
While more frequently recognized as a way to naturally brighten your teeth, baking soda may do the same for your hair. If you go the baking soda route, you’re going to be applying a paste to your hair the way you do your teeth. Mix one tablespoon of baking soda with 1/3 cup of warm water. You’re looking for a perfectly pasty consistency that’s not too thick or too runny. Apply with a color brush or paint brush and try your hand at some DIY balayage. Paint on your highlights and wrap them in foil. “Keep off the scalp and focus around your face and ends,” advises Schafer. And as with every application we’ve learned so far, applying heat will help kick things into gear and speed up the process.
Sea salt is perhaps my personal favorite approach to naturally lightening hair. "It lightens and brightens previously lightened hair and also lightens natural bases (think children’s hair),” explains Burton. As if any of us need an added excuse to head to the beach, Burton suggests “get your hair wet with salt water from the ocean and let the sun air dry it.” And if you aren’t based in a place like LA with year-round summer, simply mix one tablespoon of sea salt with half a cup of warm water and leave it on for ten to twenty minutes.
This delicate little flower carries a pigment in its petals called apigenin. Apigenin creates a golden tint, which may attach itself to the hair shaft when applied.
NY-based Cara Craig of Suite Caroline salon advises us to “ dilute with water and apply to damp hair, distributing throughout with a wide tooth comb. The lightening agent will be activated with heat so you can sit in the sun or use a hair dryer.” If you have a lighter natural base color to begin with, you can also try using the chamomile tea in your cupboard and dipping your hair into the tea once its fully steeped. The bonus is that chamomile may have conditioning properties that will leave your hair feeling soft and shiny.
Don’t be afraid to combine any of the treatments above. They’re all natural, after all. And in some cases, the added effort might be upping your chances for lighter strands.
Gavazzoni Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overview. Int J Trichology. 2015;7(1):2-15. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.153450
Imai T. The influence of hair bleach on the ultrastructure of human hair with special reference to hair damage. Okajimas Folia Anat Jpn. 2011;88(1):1-9. doi:10.2535/ofaj.88.1
D'Souza P, Rathi SK. Shampoo and conditioners: what a dermatologist should know. Indian J Dermatol. 2015;60(3):248-254. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.156355
Gopal J, Anthonydhason V, Muthu M, et al. Authenticating apple cider vinegar's home remedy claims: antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral properties and cytotoxicity aspect. Nat Prod Res. 2019;33(6):906-910. doi:10.1080/14786419.2017.1413567
Sindi A, Chawn MVB, Hernandez ME, et al. Anti-biofilm effects and characterisation of the hydrogen peroxide activity of a range of Western Australian honeys compared to Manuka and multifloral honeys. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):17666. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-54217-8
Ciancio SG. Baking soda dentifrices and oral health. J Am Dent Assoc. 2017;148(11S):S1-S3. doi:10.1016/j.adaj.2017.09.009
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem compound summary for CID 5280443, apigenin. Updated October 10, 2020.