Confession: I have hair color dysmorphia. At several points in my life, I've suffered from full-blown blondorexia. If I summed up my coloring journey in a meme, it would be along the lines of this gem saying, "I love it," to the hairdresser when I absolutely didn't. Maybe not absolutely—I've never quite hated my color (save for a tragic box dye situation in college), but a tinge of disappointment often subsists. With a thick head of hair and baby blonde goals worthy of a Finnish tot, I've hit the bleach bottle pretty hard over the years, whether with densely applied highlights or double-process sessions.
But nearly every swivel in the salon chair has left me confounded as to why my hair isn't the chilling arctic shade I'd wish it would be, though the blonde was plenty discernible. One reason? I'm fighting my natural hair color, as so many do. After 15+ years of coloring—at certain times, to an extreme—acquiesce, I might. I've always identified as a blonde, even if in a delusionally dramatic fashion à la Amy Poehler's character in Baby Mama—"I was blonde when I was a kid!"—but now that my once honey-colored hair has darkened to what I perceive to be an indefinable brownish hue (with rather warm undertones, I might add), I'm tired of the upkeep. Not to mention the damage that can come with being an unnatural blonde.
Months spent in quarantine certainly spurred my desire for a more natural hair color to an extent, but I'd already been kicking around the idea solely for better hair health. My color-treated stands? They are parched. My coarse and bouncy texture? It's lost much volume. And breakage? Man-o-man, am I accustomed. Surprisingly, I have attempted a few natural grow-outs over the years, but to no avail. I think my attempts were feeble on account of going cold turkey, whereas now, I see the journey as one that first embraces a more natural-looking color treatment.
If this all sounds familiar and you've been mulling a lower-maintenance look, keep reading for tips I learned from my colorist, Lucille Javier of Mark Ryan Salon in New York City, and bicoastal colorist, stylist, and hair extension expert, Reece Walker. Each pro will explain common coloring concerns for all shades from blonde to brunette and black to red. Plus, they're sharing tips for speaking about natural-looking hair color with your colorist, what a reasonable transition timeline looks like, and the importance of maintenance throughout the process.
A few encouraging words before we get into the nitty-gritty: "As a professional colorist, I am pro natural color; it's great to give your hair a break," Javier explains (also acknowledging how costly and time-consuming intense coloring can be). "The exciting thing about color is that there are so many more accessible options—there are beautiful ways to transition to a more manageable color."
Let's dive in, and explore them, shall we?
Establish Your Natural Color Goals
As with any hair coloring journey, it's always best to have a clear idea of what you want. "You have to work out what kind of look you want to go for as a process," Walker tells Byrdie. Some considerations: If you've been bleaching your hair, is your goal to lessen the amount of bleach applied to your strands to create a more natural, highlighted look? Or, do you want your natural color to be stretched down more into a balayage style? Walker also says to "look at photographs with similar natural hair colors to yours and decide what you feel comfortable with."
Javier stresses the importance of honestly with your colorist. "When asking a professional to help you segue into a more natural tone, I suggest being honest. I find that clients seem to be timid when asking to go natural." Patience is also crucial, no matter your color. "It's not always an easy process," she says.
Box Dye, Begone!
Javier's number-one tip when aiming for more natural-looking hair color? Don't use box dye and see a professional. "Going natural is not always easy when one has been their coloring hair for years," she explains. "Don't dump a boxed color on your head—[they] typically carry a lot of pigment due to the 'foolproof-ness' of sorts." Even scarier? Javier says box dye can be irreversible in some cases. "When going natural, it typically means going darker," she explains, noting that a semi-permanent color rather than the super-pigment color in a box dye is better for achieving a tone that matches your natural shade.
Blondes who have been regularly getting highlights or double processes should, in particular, should be wary of box color. "It's a much easier process to tone," she explains. I can attest to this as that college box dye mishap I mentioned resulted in a yellowy-orange mess that took several months to correct. For darker tones, Javier says a colorist can create a more natural look with semi-permanent color.
Start Slow With Lowlights & Toning
Walker stresses the importance of going slow for any hair color from dark to light. "We start by adding your natural color back into your hair appointments," he says, recommending lowlights in the tone of your natural hair color. "Doing this slowly is better as you don't want to rush the process and freak out!"
Walker says those who have been light for a long time often experience regrowth that appears darker than it actually is when it has fully grown out. His advice: "I recommend starting off either toning it down to blend your regrowth [or] adding in lowlights to break up the blonde."
If you've been bleaching your hair for years but have naturally dark hair, Walker warns against dramatically darkening it on the first appointment. "I would go only two or three shades darker, to begin with. Porous hair can only absorb so much color in one appointment." This goes across the board for brunettes, redheads, and blondes.
Frame That Face
Both Walker and Javier suggest face-framing highlights—which create lightness around the face and hairline—as another simple way to transition to a more natural-looking color. "I find it helps women not to lose brightness around their face to slowly pull them away from a blonde/bleach obsession," Walker explains. Javier says it's an excellent step to "unify the ends and roots by trying to make sure the hair is moving in a natural direction."
During my first appointment on the road to natural color, Javier gave me a few face-framers and maintained my lightness on the bottom but altered the highlight pattern. "I reduced the amount of highlights and mimicked it to look sun-kissed," she says.
It's A Slow Burn, But Stick With It
The transitional timeframe will vary based on your color goals, but a more natural color does take time to settle in. "I find that a lot of clients change their minds after sitting with their darker tone for a couple of months," Javier says. The colorist recommends two to three visits before fully assessing the change. For more complicated cases, she says the timeline is longer, sometimes up to a year.
Maintenance Is Key
The natural-looking color process will undoubtedly improve your hair's health, but it's crucial to prioritize maintenance as you would with more intense coloring. "I would advise taking care of your hair even more so while transitioning. I find people tend to slack off because they are going natural, but the color underneath dries out," Javier says. "Just because it looks darker and looks healthier doesn't mean it is at the core."
The colorist recommends conditioners with pigments to fill the hair with a more natural tone while straying away from color and improving texture. "[A color shampoo or conditioner] adds luster to the hair and shine," she explains. (Team Byrdie loves Leonor Greyl's line of Color-Enhancing Conditioners.) Javier is also in favor of hair supplements and vitamins. "They are wonderful tools to use to strengthen." A silk pillowcase will also reduce stress to your strands and without absorbing product while you sleep.
Now, a few more tips based on hair color.
As Javier mentioned, box color is a big no-no for a natural-looking mane. Instead, toning is usually the easiest step for transitioning. You can also ask for a gloss or lowlights, she says.
Brunettes can easily transition to a more natural look with lowlights, according to Javier. "They act opposite to highlights, creating more depth and overall accentuating the natural root," she explains. A gloss can also be helpful for brown hair in transition.
If you're starting with an unnaturally dark color on lighter hair, the journey to a more natural hue will definitely be a journey. "It all depends on the density of pigment on hair, texture, and condition of hair as well," Javier says. "If hair, in general, is compromised, it may take longer to achieve the desired look."
Tones will vary for natural redheads, especially for those that have unnaturally colored their hair. Javier says you can alter any shade with a correctional gloss. In some cases, she also suggests highlights or a color remover if the applied pigment is more extreme. Walker says the process of reverting to natural red (especially lighter shades) is slightly longer and could take a few appointments to achieve. "Patience and consultation are key," he says.
For natural redheads who have been dying their hair darker shades of brown or black, Walker says the journey usually starts by stripping the dark hair slowly and carefully to keep the hair's integrity intact. A soft brown look with warmer highlights is often the next step, to introduce a lighter and brighter appearance and avoid a "ginger" or orangey outcome. The next few appointments will typically require a root touch-up to tone down the natural red color, followed by stripping out light brown and playing with cooper tones to match the natural color more closely. Soft highlights help for variation, including strawberry blonde.
Shop my favorite products to help transition to your natural hair color:
- Davines Alchemic Shampoo Silver, $27
- Leonor Greyl Soin Repigmentant Icy Blonde, $65
- Christophe Robin Shade Variation Hair Mask Baby Blonde, $53
- Evo Platinum Blonde Colour Boosting Treatment, $40
- Oribe Shampoo For Beautiful Color, $46
- Virtue Color Revival Kit, $35
- Olaplex No. 5 Bond Maintenance™ Conditioner, $28
- Rahua Color Shampoo, $38
- John Frieda Brilliant Brunette Visibly Deeper Colour Deepening Treatment, $12
- Dr. Barbara Sturm Scalp Serum $100
- Ceremonia Aceite de Moska, $25
- Slept Satin Pillowcase, $18