If you (or someone you know) has asked a colorist for platinum blonde hair, you were likely told it would take a few sessions. Especially for those with dark hair to begin with (brunette or black), your colorist probably opted to take you up to honey blonde on the first try. There’s a reason for this, and it's chemistry.
It is hard to chemically lighten hair color, especially if you have dyed your hair at other points in the past. “Have you ever stretched a rubber band so much it becomes limp and doesn’t ‘snap back’ to its original shape?” asks Erica Douglas, an award-winning cosmetic chemist. “This happens because of the stress that stretch exerts on the elastic in the rubber band. This is essentially what is happening every time you color your hair.” Too much stress, and your hair will be damaged.
Why Go Slow?
- To lighten hair, you have to lift the color. “A developer, like hydrogen peroxide, is combined with ammonia to make an alkaline solution that forces the cuticle to swell open,” says Douglas. “While the cuticle is open, it allows the hydrogen peroxide to cause a chemical reaction with natural melanin in your hair, which lightens it.”
- Swelling of the cuticle can stress out your hair. Just like the stress on the stretched rubber band, that quick swelling of the cuticle can exert a lot of stress on your hair, “especially when done repeatedly, causing the cuticle to not close back all the way once the hair returns to its normal pH,” says Douglas. She says all the slightly-open cuticles cause the hair to be “more porous” than before the coloring process.
- When your hair is more porous, it doesn’t hold moisture as well, has a rougher texture and can lead to premature breakage. “Chemicals can more readily penetrate highly porous hair, making it easier and faster for the dye to penetrate previously-colored hair,” says Douglas. “This can lead to over-processing of the hair if not applied carefully, and possibly result in a different color than anticipated.”
- You have more control over the outcome. Marko Tomassetti, a stylist at Serge Normant by John Frieda Salon in NYC, says he always recommends lightening in stages. “One, it’s less damaging on the hair,” he says. “Two, we have more control of the outcome. And three, the most important thing is that we can stop at any stage. Most clients come in with an idea of a shade of blonde that they saw that looks good on someone else, but when they see it on themselves, they realize it’s not what they wanted.”
Going From Dark to Light
To start your first appointment, you’ll have a consultation about what color you think you want. Here, be open with your colorist about past hair experiences, because it will affect how your color lifts. “If you had a box color a long time ago, you may think the color is gone, but it’s not—only the first six inches may be gone,” says Michon Kessler, colorist and owner of Haven Salon Studios.
- The darker your hair is, the longer the whole process takes. “You want a light, bright base of hair to work with before incorporating the dye. Otherwise, adding the dye prematurely could leave you with a color that has brassy or red undertones, which might make your color look ‘dirty.’” She says to imagine using a yellow crayon on a white piece of paper, and then the same crayon on a tan piece of paper to get the idea. “The yellow will look different on each paper, because of the different undertones of the background.”
- If you've colored your hair before, it can be even trickier. Kessler says it’s she would need to lighten a test strand first. “The lift from the bleach will more than likely be uneven, so you need to see the test strand to determine where to apply your lightener,” she says. Near the the ends is typically harder to lift, because the stylist may have been enriching the colored strands every time the client went in for a root touch-up. In this case, the color is lifted in steps, and the bleaching process will take longer.
- It is likely to take at least two sessions to get the perfect color. Honey blonde is more realistic for a first session, says Kessler, whereas you may be able to go more platinum or silver later on.
- After dye has been applied and then rinsed, Tomassetti says the cuticle is still open and needs to be closed. “That’s why it’s important to have a gloss afterwards,” he says. “It tones the hair into a more desirable shade, while also closing the cuticle. I usually do a nice conditioner after color to make sure the cuticle is laying smooth and to help soften the roughness we just attacked it with.”
- You just have to remember that to go blonde is to be patient. Kessler says it can easily take four (or more) hours per session in the salon, depending on length and previous dying experience of the client.
Maintaining Strong Strands
Kessler says she often has a conversation about the level of lightness her client can achieve without damaging the integrity of the hair. “If, for instance, the underlying pigment was still pretty yellow and the hair is not holding up to a stress test—stretching it while wet to see if it will bounce back—then the client needs to be content with a toner at that level.” She often sends clients home with products that will help repair their hair and strengthen it, so they can then come back in a few weeks to continue. I
- Invest in a gentle, sulfate-free, color-safe shampoo that will not strip hair of its blonde color. “I love Alodia’s Nourish & Hydrate Conditioning Shampoo,” she Kessler. “And since I dyed my hair blonde, I’ve been using The Creme of Nature's Plex Breakage Defense Bond Mender Pre-Treatment before my shampoo as an extra layer of protection to prevent color fading and breakage.”
- A purple shampoo is also recommended. Kessler likes Schwarzkopf Professional BlondeMe Tone-Enhancing Bonding Shampoo, which she says is minimally drying compared to other products. “It is a lavender base, not super pigmented,” she says. “Most of my clients wash two times regular, and then go purple.” R+Co. also has a lavender-colored purple shampoo and conditioner for softer color care.
- Make sure to use treatment products. Tomassetti recommends applying a treatment like Serge Normant's Meta Morphosis Hair Repair directly to the ends of dry hair, wrapping hair into a bun, and then leaving it in for at least 30 minutes. Other helpful masks include Davines MINU Hair Mask, which helps brighten and soften hair, as well as Sachajuan's Hair Repair to restore smoothness and shine.
- Use serums to help seal in moisture, lock in color, and protect the hair from UV exposure. Since hair is more porous and harder to moisturize post-color, Douglas suggests Masami Mekabu Shine Serum.
- Wash and dry strands as little as possible, lay off hot tools, and use a silk pillow. It’s hair self-care.