Your Complete Guide to Going Pastel

pastel hair


Welcome to the age of pastel hair. It's been a few years now, so this may not be breaking news on the trend circuit, but that's all the more reason for us to delve a bit deeper into the topic. If pastel is here to stay, then we want to know what it takes to get there.

Like most of today's longest-lasting hair trends (ombré and balayage, beach waves and flat iron waves… ) pastel tones give off a lived-in look all its own. The colors of cotton candy and lilac are noticeable yet subtle and bold yet soft. That duality in essence makes them appealing to a wide range of hair types and textures. Pastels translate a cool confidence and easygoing attitude. From a washed-out millennial pink to a smokey teal, they remain a highly sought-after look.

So what does it take to get pastel hair color? Is it as cool, calm, and collected a process as the shade itself? Should you expect to commit your entire Saturday to hanging with your colorist in the hair salon or can you get the look by adding one more step to your shower routine? We had a lot of questions about the matter, as you can see. To investigate our curiosity further, we tapped colorist Madison Rae Garrett of NYC's Spoke and Weal for her expertise.

Meet the Expert

Madison Rae Garrett is a master colorist and educator at Spoke and Weal salon in SoHo, Manhattan. She specializes in custom color, especially vibrant hues.

Some of the things you'll want to consider before you choose your pastel hue is your current color and texture, any prior chemical treatments you've had (including color), what's possible to do at-home versus the salon, its maintenance and longevity, and what to expect when you change your mind or are ready to move on to something new. This guide will help manage your expectations and equip you to customize your color experience in a way that works best for you.

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Current Color and Texture

No matter your current tone, being a candidate for pastel colored hair will likely require you to bleach your strands. All color, natural or faux, needs to be stripped almost entirely before depositing the candy color you're crushing on. According to Garrett, lifting the hair to a light blonde is the perfect starting point. "If you have virgin hair [that has never been colored before] then it should lift light enough and easy enough." if you're a newbie to the hair color world, this might be your divine intervention. "Obviously someone with naturally lighter hair will lift easier and quicker," says Garrett.

Color also affects our texture. If your hair is already over-processed, it's likely experiencing the pain point of frequent breakage and you probably want to pump the breaks and focus on your hair's health for a minute. Do a deep conditioning treatment and lay off the chemicals. If your hair has some natural movement to it (meaning coily locks, waves or defined curls), be prepared for a potential change to your natural texture. "If someone has textured hair, lifting can cause the texture to soften or change, but if it's virgin hair and you only lift it once, then it's usually no problem."

In short, pastel's ideal candidates are the naturally light (or pre-lightened) and the untouched, never-before-colored heads of hair.

For every color, there's a pastel tone in the family. This mint green hue looks like the result of a much faded teal dye job sans natural regrowth at the roots—intentionally minty fresh.

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Pre-Treated Hair

Just because you don't have virgin strands doesn't mean you can't partake in the pastel trend. The process just requires a little extra heavy lifting—literally. "Color treated hair is harder to lift to a pale yellow which is needed to achieve a pastel color, and sometimes you're not able to get as light as you need, so then you'll have to come up with a new color plan," says Garrett. Translation: It's probably safe not to make any time-sensitive plans after your color appointment.

As with any first-time color appointment, it's best to have a consultation prior to your service so you and your colorist know what to expect before you jump into things. "There are ways to get [pre-treated hair] light enough but it requires more time, and that can be expensive," Garrett warns, "so that's always something your colorist should talk to you about before the service."

Now, we're aware that color isn't the only pre-existing chemical treatment you might be dealing with. We also took into account those of you with Brazilian blowouts and keratin treatments. These treatments are drastically changing the chemistry of your hair's natural state, so caution is definitely advised. Let's be real—too much of any one thing rarely has a great outcome, right? Garrett agrees, "You never want to do too many chemical treatments to the hair because that can break down the hair and cause damage."

So for all you out there who have already tampered with your hair's color or texture, remember that consultations are crucial and you should proceed to pastel with informed caution.

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Salon or DIY?

Alright, so let's say you're already platinum, or you've got a heavy hand of highlights. Is a salon visit even required to achieve the pastel hair color of your dreams?

"Once you've had your hair professionally lifted, you can use over-the-counter dyes, which are called 'direct dyes,'" explains Garrett. Companies like Manic Panic, Pravana, Overtone, and Pulpriot are reliable, consumer friendly dyes that you can pick up from your local beauty store. Of course you run the risk of going too bright, or having an uneven distribution of color, but if you chat with your colorist beforehand while the thought is still brewing, maybe they can offer some pointers for your best at-home experience.

If you do take matters into your own hands, Garrett advises that when you do make it back into the salon, you're always sure to inform your colorist of any color products previously used on your hair.

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Maintenance and Longevity

Now, just how long can a good thing last? Is touching up pastel hair color the equivalent of a bang trim? These were just a few of the questions we brought to Garrett's expert attention, and of course, individual hair history and color goals make maintenance a variable topic.

"Pastel colors do not have a lot of longevity," she explains. "You get a few shampoos and then it's usually out." That's a hard thing to hear after the long hours of heavy lifting and stripping of your natural tone. "I usually make the hair a little more vibrant in the beginning so [clients] have a little extra time with the color," Garrett says. And remember those direct dyes we mentioned? It turns out they're the perfect products for at-home touch-ups. The amount of times you freshen up your color really depends on your own desires. Though, Garrett does mention that the blonde strands beneath your pastel have a much stricter timeline. If you start out as a platinum blonde, she recommends a touch-up every four to six weeks. For the highlighted or balayage bases, you can stretch it out to every three to six months.

In terms of cost, this highly varies depending on the state your hair is in when you get started. An all-over pastel job is obviously much more time consuming and therefore expensive. The more drastic of a color change from your base (and the more platinum you go) is going to require more touch-ups that involve an expert's time and hand.

Aside from touch-ups, you also have at-home care to consider. Similar to the blue or purple shampoos recommended for freshly painted blondes, these temporary dyes will last much longer with the use of color-preserving shampoos and conditioners. Garrett advises us to avoid sun exposure and swimming pools to keep color locked in, so perhaps summer isn't the season of choice for this look. But the real trick to pastel life longevity is to avoid water altogether. "Honestly the less you shampoo, the more time you get."

Some pastel shades aren't as straight forward and require an informed blend by your chosen color expert. Shades like peach need to be mixed just right to avoid any orange-you-glad-you-didn't-learn-that-the-hard-way, type of situations. With the right help, your colorist's expertise should leave you feeling peachy keen.

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Forward Thinking

With all the work that goes into acquiring those soft, cool-headed hues, it's thankfully much easier to remove once you're ready to carry on. "There are products made to remove pastel colors without using more lightener or causing any damage to the hair." Phew! Garrett assures us that going back to a more natural look is much easier to attain, especially when the pastel has faded out. The process of changing colors again could take time, and time means money, but as long as there is no color correction that needs to be addressed—like a pestering shade of blue that just won't come out—the price point should fall in the same range as any regular color treatment.

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