Following in the footsteps of every uni student cliché before me, as soon as my parents dropped me off in the tiny box that would be my room for my first year out of the family home, I shaved off most of my hair and turned what was left of it purple. I say this casually, as if the process was pain-free and smooth sailing all the way — when in reality my first time had me bent over the sink in said tiny box while a friend poured jug after jug of too-cold water over my newly (and unevenly) blonde, frizzy hair. BUT three years on, I can now safely say that I know enough about dyeing my hair to at least remember not to stain the bathroom tiles.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I’m not a professional hairdresser. Always follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer, and if in doubt, consult a qualified professional. However, there is very little to the process that requires specialist expertise, so don’t be scared off! My partner and I have gotten a fair amount of practice in and learnt how to do more complicated colour combinations, but I’ve done this even with friends who’d had no prior experience at all. Doing your hair yourself is fun, much cheaper than going to the salon, and probably only moderately hazardous to your health.
Step One: Bleaching
I’ve known more than one person who’s said things like, “I dye my hair so frequently I’ve forgotten what the original colour is” and I’m never quite sure how to respond. Is this a really roundabout humblebrag? Do these people never look in the mirror, wildly stabbing at their scalp every time they sense their roots have grown out? My hair is black, so bleaching isn’t optional. Some people have success getting tinted hair by just dyeing unbleached hair, but bleaching is the best way to get bright, long-lasting colours.
Before we begin, here’s a few things to take note of:
- This how-to assumes you’re bleaching your hair as a first step to dyeing it other colours. While it’s possible to lighten your hair to platinum blonde, etc. at home, it’s also pretty hard to do evenly, so if you’re doing this (especially for the first time!), maybe lower your expectations.
- If you’re using permanent hair dye (instead of temporary or semi-permanent ones like Manic Panic), the dye might already contain peroxide and/or ammonia to lighten your hair. I didn’t run into any issues this one time I bleached my hair before using Herbatint dye, but it might be different for you. Try to avoid ammonia in hair products.
- The effects of hair bleach are permanent. Bleach oxidises the melanin in your hair (turning it from your natural hair colour to colourless) so there is no way to go back to the original colour until new hair grows out. There’s no getting around it: bleach smells terrible and feels terrible and will make you wonder why you’re putting yourself through this. But the end results will make you feel awesome about yourself and even if it messes up, hair always grows back!
Keep your hair as clean and healthy as possible. Avoid using hair products and heat styling tools, and try not to bleach your hair too soon after other chemical treatments like hair relaxing. Condition! And then condition some more — but not too soon before bleaching, because conditioner coats hair cuticles and makes it harder for the chemicals to work. Shampoo your hair about a day before bleaching, so it’s clean but your hair has some time to build up sebum to protect your scalp.
Decide on the strength of the bleach you want to use. Hair bleach usually comes in two parts: bleach powder and cream/clear developer. The volume of the developer affects the strength of the reaction that lightens your hair.
- 20 vol: for light-coloured hair
- 30 vol: for medium/dark-coloured hair
- 40 vol: for very dark hair
Most guides recommend that you don’t use 40 vol developer and that you don’t bleach black hair (especially if it’s been dyed black). I do all of these things regularly with reckless abandon and great results. If risking the health of your hair for vanity and convenience isn’t your thing, try using 20/30 vol developer and bleaching your hair multiple times instead.
Get bleach! Boxed kits are great for getting started: Manic Panic (US) and Directions (UK) are popular options. We’ve also experimented with perfumed bleaches like GATSBY Ex Hi Bleach but found the artificial smell even more offensive — might work for you though. These kits contain all the equipment you need, but you’ll need more than one box if your hair is long or thick. For a more economical option, you can buy bleach powder and developer in larger quantities and mix them as needed.
Do a strand test. This is especially important if you’re using a new product, have previously bleached/dyed your hair, used henna or have skin conditions/allergies. I’ll admit I usually skip this step because I’m not too fussed about what colour my hair ends up since I move on immediately to dyeing, and neither my partner nor I have reacted badly to bleach despite having eczema and psoriasis respectively. But your mileage may vary, of course, and bleaching is by far the most destructive step in this process so take all the precautions you need to feel confident you’re not about to melt your ALH off.
Cover everything. Bleach will ruin your hands, clothes and rental deposit. Wear gloves and apply Vaseline to your ears and hairline; if you have cartilage piercings that you want to keep covered, use cling wrap. Use plastic sheaths or newspaper to line your working area and cover your back and shoulders. Don’t wear anything you’re going to miss if bleach falls on it; tops with a wide neckline are good so you can get it off without it brushing your hair. (Plus there’s always the option of not wearing anything.) Always, always use bleach in a well-ventilated place, unless you enjoy entertaining paranoid thoughts about your imminent death brought on by inhaling noxious fumes.
Mix the bleach powder and developer in non-metal containers. Mix the dry into wet (which I always do wrong). If no instructions are provided, the powder and developer should be added in roughly equal proportions till no lumps of powder remain and the mixture approximates the consistency of buttercream frosting. Getting the ratio exactly right isn’t super important; you just want it smooth enough to spread and not too dry.
Section and clip/tie up your hair (again, no metal!). Bleach is quite thick and doesn’t work itself into hair easily. I find it easiest to tie the top part of my hair up with a rubber band and then pull out small amounts at a time, but a more common method, especially with thicker/longer hair, is to use clips to section the hair into quarters. It’s a lot easier to do this with a partner so you can make sure nothing gets missed, but if you’re on your own, set up two mirrors so you can see the back of your head.
Work from the bottom up with a plastic brush or your (gloved) fingers. This seems counterintuitive, but the tips of your hair will take the longest to process because they’re the farthest away from the heat of your head. To get a more even colour, apply bleach to your roots only 5-10min after you’re done with the rest of your hair. (This also reduces the risk of chemical burns from too-strong bleach getting into contact with your scalp.)
Do NOT bleach your eyebrows. This shit will blind you.
Keep a close eye on processing time. Bleach might act faster on your head than during the strand test because of your body heat. To prevent the bleach from drying out and to speed things up a little, wear a shower cap. You can also use a hairdryer, but I don’t recommend it because it can make your hair really brittle. Try not to leave the bleach in for more than 30min — an itchy scalp is normal, but stop immediately if it feels like it’s burning.
Rinse the bleach from your hair with cold water and shampoo. No matter how healthy your hair was, bleach will make it feel like straw, I’m sorry! Don’t worry though, it’s nothing deep conditioner won’t fix. If you’re going to bleach your hair again or dye it immediately after, save the conditioner for later.
Bleach again (if necessary). Ideally, you should let your hair rest for about a week — with plenty of conditioning — before bleaching it again. Realistically, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be unwilling to live more than two hours of your life blonde(ish) and want to get it all done in one go. I’ve never had problems bleaching with 40 vol developer twice in a day (and thrice with 30 vol), but as always, be very careful if you’ve not done this before.
Use toner (if necessary). Toners are essentially very dilute hair dyes that help to remove the yellow/orange tones that remain after bleaching. Lilac (also called white) toners neutralise yellow tones, while blue toners neutralise orange tones. If you’re not dyeing your bleached hair, purple shampoo works as a long-term solution to remove brassy tones. A cheap alternative to all of this is to mix a bit of violet (bluish purple, not reddish purple) hair dye into regular conditioner and work it into your hair, and if you have green-toned hair (usually from swimming in chlorinated pools), some people swear by tomato juice. Keep an eye on your hair — if you overprocess it, it’ll take on the colour of your toner. To be honest, though, we’ve had very poor results with toners and find it to be an unnecessary use of time and money.
Step Two: Dyeing
Wash your hair with clarifying shampoo. Unlike bleach, dye (probably) won’t do horrible things to your hair but you do need to remove build-up and oils so it gets absorbed better. Hot water helps to open up your cuticles.
Choose the right colour. Hair dyes are translucent, so choosing what’s appropriate for your hair is a bit more complicated than you’d expect. (I learnt this the hard way.) Here’s a simple colour wheel:
These are the main colour types/relationships to be aware of:
- Primary colours (red, yellow, blue) are colours that cannot be made of other colours. This is pretty 101, but if you’re planning to mix dyes together, it’s worthwhile to invest in primaries.
- Complementary colours (on opposite sides of the wheel) neutralise each other. When used in small amounts (as in toner), this can help to remove the faded remnants of your last dye job and give you a paler base to work with. BUT if you use say, green dye on red hair, you’ll just get a muddy, unappealing brown. Streaks of complementary colours in your hair give you strong contrast.
- Analogous colours (next to each other on the wheel) boost each other’s depth and vibrancy. Streaks of analogous colours give you smooth harmony, as well as what is described as “cool” (green, blue, purple) or “warm” (red, orange, yellow) blends. My current hair colour is a mix of Directions turquoise, cerise and plum (or as Natalie calls it, “merbutch”) and it’s definitely my favourite to date.
- Monochromatic colours are tints, tones and shades of the same hue. To get a lighter, pastel shade, you can mix your hair dye with an appropriate toner or conditioner. These slow down how quickly the dye gets absorbed into your hair.
To minimise the amount of processing you put your hair through, work around the wheel (e.g. from blue to purple to red hair). Mix dye as you please, but it’s best if you mix the same brands together and don’t mix different types (e.g. permanent and temporary) because they’re made of different stuff.
Get hair dye! I really love Special Effects and Directions, and have had less luck with Manic Panic though it seems to be a lot of people’s go-to semi-permanent brand. It’s unlikely you’ll find the more unnatural (and better) colours at standard hair salons, so if you want to buy them in person try to find the kind of shops where they sell 394209 kinds of piercing jewelry and studded belts and everyone dresses in (faux) leather. Are they called punk shops? Goth shops? I am clearly too uncool to know this.
Do a strand test. This not only helps preempt any skin reactions or other hair health issues (as with the bleach), it also serves a preview of what the dye’s actually going to look like on your hair. Fair warning: while turquoise is lovely and everyone wants it in their hair, it also often shows up as green unless you start from a very pale base and tends to fade very quickly.
Section your hair and paint the dye on with a brush. Use a toothbrush (or even just gloved fingers) if you don’t have a dedicated plastic hair dye brush. It’s really fun, like an art project!
If you’re using more than one colour or high/lowlighting your hair, there are plenty of ways you can do it:
- Get a highlighting cap or poke holes through a shower cap, pulling each section of hair that you want to dye out through the plastic. This is the best way to make sure nothing you don’t want dyed gets dyed, but figuring out which strands to pull through can get confusing.
- Wrap each dyed section in foil. This gives you a better sense of where to apply dye, but is messier than the cap. Cut the foil before you start dyeing to make the process less exasperating.
- Coat sections that you don’t want dyed in conditioner or petroleum jelly. Semi-permanent dyes don’t stick to these bits. This is useful if you want Rogue (of X-Men)-style hair.
- Just paint it on. This is how my partner and I do our hair because we want the colours to blend together, not show up as distinct streaks. (Also because we’re lazy. Mainly because we’re lazy.) If you’re doing it this way, be prepared to get messy — clip/tie up the sections that are done to get them out of the way, or just get in there with your fingers.
Leave the dye in for as long as you want IF it doesn’t have any developer in it. (If it does, don’t exceed the processing time stated on the box.) Put a shower cap on and use a hairdryer to help the colour set better. Some people choose to leave the dye on overnight, but I think that’s a colourful accident waiting to happen. With most semi-permanent dyes, leaving them in for longer doesn’t damage your hair but you might get a much darker colour than you’d bargained for — it’ll fade with a few washes though.
Rinse the dye from your hair with cold water and shampoo. It’s gonna be messy: back when I used Special Effects’ Blue Velvet (one of the longest-lasting dyes I’ve ever tried) regularly, my bathtub would look like a Smurf murder scene. At this point I usually get quite distressed that none of the dye is sticking because my hair’s short enough (and my eyes myopic enough) that I can’t see any of it while a seemingly endless stream of dye bleeds out into the water, but don’t worry, it’s still on there. Probably.
Condition! Conditioner is just so good for your hair, you guys.
Clean any hair dye stains on bathroom tiles, etc. before the dye dries. When the dye’s still quite dilute often just soap, scrubbing and running water does the job, but I also use nail polish remover for more stubborn dried stains. The stuff on your hands will wash off eventually.
Step Three: Aftercare
Don’t wash your hair too much, but condition plenty. Semi-permanent dyes fade with each wash. Shampooing your hair excessively makes it drier and more brittle, which is particularly a concern for bleached hair. On the other hand, you can’t condition too much! Conditioner helps to seal the colour in. Try to get colour-safe, sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner.
Add a bit of dye to your conditioner to maintain your colour. Or, if you need to neutralise certain tones in your hair (dye can act in strange and unpredictable ways, including changing colour upon exposure to sunlight or chlorinated water), remember the stuff about toners and the colour wheel.
Cover your pillowcases! Temporary and/or cheap dyes will bleed really quickly out of your hair, including when you’re sweating, but even the best semi-permanent dyes will probably stain your clothes/anything you rest your head on while your hair is wet.
Here’s a recap of the most important tips we’ve covered here:
- Do a strand test before trying any new chemicals.
- DON’T shampoo your hair right before bleaching.
- DO shampoo your hair right before dyeing.
- Work from the bottom up.
- Condition, condition, condition (but only after processing).
Now we’ve got the basics down but everyone has their special feelings about how to get their hair done exactly right (I know I do) — you’ll figure it out as you go along. Share your own tips and photos in the comments!
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