Today, I want to discuss the most commonly misconceived idea about lifting hair color.
You really have no idea how often I hear stories of people trying to use a light blonde hair color to make their black hair turn platinum blonde.
When I used to work at Sally Beauty Supply, I got questions about this process on the daily.
It’s possible that you even tried to lift out your dye with a lighter color and found that it didn’t turn out the way you expected, right?. Maybe it stayed brown after coloring it. Maybe it got even darker.
Well, I can explain this phenomenon in precisely four words: color won’t lift color. Like, ever.
Keep reading to find out why it won’t work, and how you can lighten your hair the right way…
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To explain the concept of lifting hair color, I’ll be using an analogy that makes sense to most people.
Think about what it’s like to color on paper with markers… because I’d be willing to bet that you’ve done that before.
Well, markers work by transferring ink to paper when you push down on them. The ink found in markers is generally composed of different dyes. Kinda like hair color.
Okay, now I’d like to introduce you to Tiffany.
She has naturally blonde hair that has never been colored. She also has no lower body or arms.
One day, Tiffany decided that she wanted to dye her hair dark brown. To demonstrate that, I colored over the blonde hair with a brown marker.
She was ecstatic about her new look, as you can tell by her huge smile. And assuming she could go out, I’m sure she would have received a ton of compliments.
BUT… exactly one week later, she decided that brown hair wasn’t her thing, and wanted her blonde hair back. Pronto.
She had one of her friends pick up some golden blonde hair color to match her natural color.
Then, her friend applied the color to Tiffany’s hair and let it sit for 45 minutes, exactly like the directions told her to do. To demonstrate this, I used a yellow marker to color over the brown hair again.
So after washing out the color, her hair looks like this:
What went wrong?
The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color
Color doesn’t lift previously colored hair.
Like markers or crayons, you can’t cover a dark color with a light color and expect it to be lighter. Basically, you’re just packing more color molecules in the hair shaft with the other dark color molecules.
The result is even darker hair.
Okay, let me explain further…
Your hair is made of three parts: the medulla and cortex (which are the inner parts of the hair shaft), and the cuticle (the scale-like protective covering).
Melanin (aka color pigments) are located in the cortex.
The ammonia in hair color opens the scales of the cuticle, allowing color pigments to get deep up in the cortex. So when you use permanent color, the molecules are meant to stay there forever.
Let’s just say that they’re packed in there like sardines.
Why Can’t Color Lift Color?
So back to the example I used with Tiffany.
When she first dyed her hair brown, a bunch of tiny brown color molecules were packed into her hair shaft. She may have lost a few molecules when she washed her hair, but overall, they remained intact.
So then, when her friend applied the blonde color to her hair, a few blonde color molecules packed into the spaces where the few brown molecules washed out.
Her hair was still brown because the color molecules weren’t lifted out of her hair.
That’s because dye isn’t meant to lift unnatural color molecules out of the hair; it’s just meant to deposit more pigment.
But then you’re like, “Hollee, why does light blonde hair color even exist? How do people go from dark hair to blonde?”
The answer is that light blonde hair color works just fine on virgin hair, or hair that’s been previously lightened or stripped.
Virgin hair is code for hair that has never been colored.
It could be that the person has never used color in their life, or that all of the previously colored hair has grown out. In either case, the hair that you see has no artificial color molecules in it. None.
Outgrowth is always virgin hair. This is why your roots react differently to hair color than the rest of your hair (this phenomenon is called hot roots).
It’s also important to note that you won’t get drastic results with hair color. For instance, if your natural hair color is dark brown, you probably won’t be able to get to a level 10 blonde with hair color.
I mean… color can definitely lift virgin hair, but only a few levels lighter. You can always use a high-lift blonde, as they’re designed to add more lift, but they’ll never be as effective as bleach.
And remember that high-lift blondes won’t even work on previously colored hair… or if they do, the lift is unpredictable. I’m saying they could even turn your hair green.
How To Lighten Dark Hair
But have no fear! You can still lift the dark color out of your hair if you want to go lighter. Just be aware that this usually takes multiple processes, realistic expectations, and a whole lotta patience.
If you like your hair, I always recommend having a professional take your hair lighter.
It’s way too easy to mess up your hair if you aren’t confident with these chemicals. Hairstylists spend countless hours in the salon, perfecting the chemistry behind hair color.
But if you still wanna give it a try, you gotta use bleach or a color stripper.
I know that the thought of bleach freaks most people out, and it can definitely melt off your hair if you get crazy with it.
But bleaching your hair shouldn’t do much damage if done correctly.
If Tiffany had bleached her hair to the level of blonde she wanted, and then applied the color she wanted to her hair, it would have turned out as she wanted.
Using the marker analogy, pretend that I used nail polish remover (which, according to the internet, removes marker from paper) before using the yellow marker on a fresh canvas.
That scenario would probably result in Tiffany having blonde hair again, right?
The final option is to strip the color out of her hair.
Stripping hair color removes the packed molecules, revealing natural color (to an extent).
Depending on how dark the color is, how many times it’s been colored, etc., it could take multiple processes to remove all of the dye.
Find out more about the process of lightening dark hair to a light blonde color.
It’s definitely possible to lift hair color without bleach. If you have virgin hair, a blonde hair color, or high-lift dye can lighten your hair. If you do have color on your hair, a color stripper can be used to give your hair a fresh canvas.
Typically, you can lift your hair 2-3 levels with a standard hair color. High-lift colors can usually lift up to 5 levels lighter.
Definitely not. You’ll need to bleach your hair or strip the color out of your hair before attempting to go lighter.
Hair color isn’t a magical cream that you put on your hair to turn it whatever color you like. But boy, wouldn’t that be nice?
To understand hair color, it’s important to realize that it’s a chemical, and there are physical limitations of what can and can’t be done.
One of the most fundamental things to learn is that you can’t lift hair color with more hair color. It almost always leaves you with an undesirable result.
But with a little bit of hair color knowledge and some patience, you’ll eventually get your dream color. Just keep swimming.
Until next time,
▶︎ YOUR TURN: Did you already know the golden rule of hair color? If not, did this analogy help explain it to you? Drop your thoughts and questions in the comments section below! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼
- How To Dye Your Hair At Home Like A Pro
- The Definitive Guide to DIY Hair Color
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- How To Read Hair Color Numbers & Letters On The Label
- 5 Things You Should Know Before Cutting Hair At Home
💡TIP: Don’t forget to pin this article to your Hair Color board on Pinterest so you can always come back to it when you need to! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼
Friday 18th of November 2022
So I used dark brown hair dye (Box) forever. Grey roots coming in, so I decided that I would go to the salon so they could bleach (lift) my dark brown hair so I can go naturally grey. After 6 hrs. in the salon, they used 20? with foil, then toner. I now have white ish, blonde ish, orange ish hair. Help!
Wednesday 15th of June 2022
Yes This did help me understand why we use developer along with hair color. Thanks
Saturday 4th of June 2022
Hi Hollie. I have about 4 different colors of red in my hair. My fault of course. When ever my gray shows up I get color and put it on. Any way. I want to start all over. And have the auburn color I love. I was born Auburn. Please help. Thank you.
Tuesday 8th of March 2022
Hollee thank you for so clearly articulating what many many people don’t understand… my question is Do other naturally dark blondes have trouble lifting with bleach powder and 30 volume?? I Don’t know if it’s because I have green eyes freckles and strawberry undertone to my hair ? but I’ve always had a problem with getting good level 9 or 10 ….whereas my blue-eyed, ash blonde sister can get almost white level 10 with 30 volume and sometimes even 20v. in about 15-20 min!! Even with brand new fresh developer and blue bleach powder my hair is about a level 6/7 rusty orange… My hair is too fine to go back to the harsh days of 40 and 50 volume again …I’ve been out of the business for a decade - would you say there’s a difference in bleach and volume developer that another brand may do better ? Or adding blondIng cream?
I don’t want to use heat oN foils anymore - it Is too much spongey, damage… and bleaching twice with 30 volume is probably the same amount of damage as if I just did 40 or 50 once? Thank you! Love your posts.
Tuesday 8th of March 2022
Just to clarify Iabove…’m talking about virgin 3 to 4 inch Covid roots! UnProcessed naturally dark blonde (with some gray starting)… thank u!
Friday 14th of May 2021
Hi Hollee, SUCH A great super helpful post!! can you possibly answer a question for me? I think my hair is a natural 6-7 but it is a weird color i would describe as mousy brown but if you look super close at it, i have always had "natural highlights" as in strands of blonde throughout. I have light skin and green-hazel eyes. However, when I have bleached my hair using feria super platinum, or use a high lift tint with 1:2 30 vol or even have it done at the salon, i always find it to have a subtle but almost greenish-greyish tone to it rather than brassy tones like others complain of. I want my hair to be a super pale gold like butter blonde not white or ash. I think I am misunderstanding my base color in some way, or am i perhaps using too high a volume of developer (30 vol). First of all is there a way to avoid getting these tones, or is it that i need to then add a hair color (like a 10 shade no bleach or lift) or is it a toner problem. i have tried blue shampoo shimmer lights etc and while i would say that makes it look a bit better, it still kind of evens out the same grey-green tones rather than changing them. I hope this makes sense, not sure that i understand it myself! Thank you so much, looking forward to working my way through the blog.