Lightening your hair has the potential to go very, very wrong. Nobody wants chewy, stretchy hair that looks like mozzarella cheese. [video link]
I am by no means a professional and I don't have any professional training. The following tips are compiled from research I did before bleaching my own hair and from personal experience.
I was extremely nervous the first time I did it on my own, it had been years since I had bleached hair for friends and decades since my own hair had been done. The major reason I was scared was the condition of my hair.
The condition your hair is in needs to be carefully assessed before bleaching (or any process that involves peroxide). If your hair is already quite damaged it's best not to bleach. My own hair was very dry and it's also seriously fine, so fine that every hair stylist I have seen comments on how they've never seen finer stands. I was worried that my hair might be too fine to handle bleach. Fine hair can be prone to breakage but mine doesn't seem too bad as I am able to grow it out very long (I used to have hair past my butt once upon a time). The other thing I was nervous about was all the years of box dye. I wasn't sure if it had all been cut off and box dye blacks are obnoxious to remove. I had stopped dying it after developing a PPD allergy 6 years ago so I had 6 years of "virgin" growth. My hair was definitely in better condition than it had been when I was dying it black so I decided to just get on with it and do a strand test.
Strand tests are SUPER IMPORTANT! Do not skip a strand test even if you have never had an allergic reaction to anything ever in your life. A strand test will not only potentially save you from a life threatening allergic reaction but they will also help with timing. No two heads of hair as the same so they react slightly differently to the same processes. Watch the strand test as it develops to get an idea how long you will need to leave the bleach on.
My strand test showed I needed about an hour to lighten my lengths. Hair farthest from your head will take longer than hair closest to your scalp because of the heat of your head. Heat makes bleach process quickly. To contrast that, my roots typically only take 15-20 minutes to get to pale yellow.
If your hair doesn't lighten to the level you need it to in one bleaching DON'T bleach it again immediately after. Bleach damage is cumulative. That means it builds up every time you do it. Once your hair is damaged you can never repair it. Hair is dead, it is not living tissue, it will not heal. No matter what that bottle of deep conditioner tells you, you can not truly fix it. Bleach damage can take about a month to show up. Your hair may feel alright after, but give it a few weeks and it may start snapping off. You also need to give your poor scalp some time to heal.
If your hair patchy or not light enough for the color you want after one go I recommend dying it a darker version of the color you want. After a month or so, assess your hair again and bleach it if it's able to handle it. Gradually lighten! It can take many months to get from one color to another, especially drastic changes like black to white blonde can take a year or more.
- Assess the condition of your hair before bleaching. Check for damage by tugging on a small section of your hair when wet. Does it break or feel gummy? Don't bleach. If it stays strong you should be ok.
- If you hair was dyed using a dye that uses peroxide use a color remover like Color Oops, Color Zap, Color B4, JoBaz, or Decolour Remover. These work by shrinking the color molecule so it can be washed out. You can find more info about these products here.
- Before bleaching make sure to not wash your hair for several days. Let it get dirty! The oils will help protect your scalp from chemical burns.
- Also, coat your hair and scalp with coconut oil. Coconut oil may prevent protein loss- more info can be found here.
- NEVER EVER EVER EVER bleach if your scalp has any scratches or cuts no matter how minor. Even the teeniest rake of a finger nail can turn into a chemical burn.
- DO A STRAND TEST! Instructions can be found here.
- Make sure you have enough bleach and developer, It's better to buy a tub of bleach and a jug of developer than those little packets.
- Use the right developer- almost everyone should stay as far away from 40 vol as possible. Use 30 for very dark or resistant hair. Most people should be fine with 20 vol. The lower the developer the less likely you are to fry your hair and burn your scalp. It may take longer to lighten but it's worth it.
- Check that your bleach and developer are safe for "on the scalp" use. If they're not then DON'T use them on your scalp! Those bleaches will only be good for your lengths. I don't bother with them because I just want one product that I can use again for root touch ups.
- Read reviews before making a choice, some bleaches lighten better than others. Many people like Matrix Light Master and Wella Blondor. I use Sally's house brand Ion and have good results. I use the line for sensitive scalp and have never had any discomfort or irritation. I don't recommend Manic Panic Flash Lightening Kits or L'oreal Quick Blue.
- Make sure to buy plastic gloves, plastic measuring cups, a tint brush, plastic mixing bowl, plastic spoon, plastic cap, plastic sectioning clips and if you want, a cape to cover yourself. PLASTIC. No metal, it will react with the bleach!
- Wear the gloves! Your fingers will get really dry and irritated if you don't. Like this. It turns white and hard then starts peeling off. It's a chemical burn, kids, and may require medical attention!
- Set aside a whole day (or two) to devote to your hair so you don't feel the need to rush.
- Get a friend to help if you can. Make sure it's a friend and not a frenemy, you need someone you can trust LOL.
- Make sure to mix the bleach well and apply it quickly. If you're doing a whole head by yourself I recommend doing it in sections. As in do one area, let it process completely, wash out your bleach, dry your hair and do another section. This will help prevent uneven results.
- ALWAYS apply bleach to the midlengths first, then ends and LASTLY do the roots (about 1 inch closest to the scalp). Remember how I said it takes 1 hour for my lengths and 20 mins for my roots? Mix up bleach for your lengths and apply it. Wait 40 mins (or what your strand test tells you) then mix more bleach and do your roots. This helps give even results. I say midlengths first because the cuticle on the ends tends to be more lifted (ends are usually more damaged) so they often lift quicker than hair in the middle.
- If bleach dries out it stops working. Bleach needs to stay warm and moist so make sure to put a plastic cap on. If it dries, wash it off ASAP because it won't lighten any more, just damage.
- If your scalp burns, gets hot or itchy at any point rinse off the bleach RIGHT NOW. Don't ignore it, you may be having an allergic reaction or getting a chemical burn.
- Doing a bleach bath rather than a full strength bleach may be the best choice for you. It will dilute the peroxide for a more controlled lightening. Bleach baths also spread easier through the hair. Don't know how to do one? Click right here.
- Pay attention while the bleach is on your head, don't let yourself get distracted because it can be as little as say 5 minutes between perfect light hair and over bleached mess. I keep a mirror on my desk and check my hair frequently. Slide the bleach off the hair and check the color. If it's not light enough smooth the bleach back on, tuck it back in the cap and wait a few more minutes. Remember timing with your strand test!
- If you plan on dying your hair after bleaching it don't condition your hair. Just wash it out with shampoo, detangle with your fingers and dry it. Conditioner will push the cuticle down and prevent dye from soaking into the hair.
- Assess the condition of your hair after bleaching, tug it while it's wet. Stretchy? Gummy? Let's hope not. But if you accidentally fried your hair click here.
- Bleached hair is dry and thirsty. Give it a drink of coconut oil again. Coconut oil penetrates deep into the hair and makes it swell with moisture. This can help prevent breakage.
- Avoid using conditioners and hair products with silicones after bleaching because silicones sit outside the hair and coat it. They make the hair feel great and can disguise the actual condition of your hair. If you are using them and want to know what your hair is really like wash with clarifying shampoo, don't condition, then dry and feel your hair. I'm not one of those anti-silicone people but it is important to know that they can mislead you. I have seen a few girls wind up ruining their hair because it felt great due to 'cones but was really not in any condition to be bleached.
- Use a protein treatment after bleaching to help temporarily repair your hair. I swear by Joico K-pak Deep Penetrating Reconstructor. These fill in the gaps of the cuticle and make your hair feel nicer, make it stronger (temporarily) and reduce porosity (temporarily). Do them weekly, no more often than that. The reason for that is over doing the protein makes hair dry and brittle... which is what we are trying to prevent. Joico products can sometimes be found for sale in salons and beauty supply shops but you will probably have to order this from Amazon or eBay. Some places require a license to buy it and many salons just offer it as a service.
- Since protein treatments are drying make sure to have a good deep conditioner on hand to use afterward. Joico makes a product called Intense Hydrator designed to be used after the DPR.
- Lastly, get a nice trim after bleaching. I take about an inch or so off the ends and watch for split ends in the coming weeks. If I still have splits I do another inch. Sharp good scissors are a must!
If your scalp is crusty and weeping fluid after bleaching seek medical care. This is a chemical burn! Chemical burns can be minor but they can also be serious and lead to scaring and bald spots. Even if they are minor you should still get medical care because they can become infected.
Chemical Burn Case Study (PDF) [warning- contains graphic black and white image of a burn]
Bleaching Horror Stories
How light you need to go depends on the color you want to dye... reds and oranges need only to lighten to levels 3-7 for example. Pastel colors will need a 10, which needs to be TONED not bleached to levels 11 and 12. Never bleach to white. White is the point of no return, your hair will be ruined.
Toning is done with toners, you can buy them or make your own. Add just a teeny drop of dye (use only direct dyes like Manic Panic, Adore, Directions, Punky Color, etc) to enough white conditioner to cover your whole head. Toners made with direct dyes are often best left on for hours, while toners that require developer may only require 5-15 minutes. Keep in mind developer will further damage hair so you want to carefully assess your hair's condition first.