The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color

Today, I want to discuss a commonly misconceived idea about lifting hair color.

I frequently hear people ask questions like why their hair is still brown after putting a blonde color over it, or why their hair color gets darker each time they color it. 

Well, I can explain in precisely four words: color won’t lift color. Like, ever.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let me explain exactly how hair color works with this clever analogy...

This is how it works…

I’m going to use an analogy that will make more sense to most people. Think about what it’s like to color on paper with markers. This is a good way for you to understand the golden rule of lifting hair color since most people are familiar with how markers work….

Okay, next, I’d like to introduce you to Clarice. She has naturally blonde hair, and it has never been colored. She also has no lower body or arms.

Read all about the golden rule of hair color, and find out why color won't lift color.

Clarice decided one day that she wanted to color her hair dark brown (I covered the blonde hair with a brown marker).

Read all about the golden rule of hair color, and find out why color won't lift color.

She really liked her new look, as you can tell by her huge smile. And assuming she could walk, I’m sure she would have received a ton of compliments.

However, she decided a week later that brown hair was not her thing, and wanted her blonde hair back. She had one of her friends pick up some golden blonde hair color to match her natural color from Walmart.

Her friend, then, applied the color to Clarice’s hair and let it sit for 45 minutes, exactly like the directions told her to do (for the analogy, I colored over the brown hair with a yellow marker).

Read all about the golden rule of hair color, and find out why color won't lift color.

So after washing out the color, her hair looks like this:

Read all about the golden rule of hair color, and find out why color won't lift color.

What went wrong?

The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color:

You can’t use a dark color and then put a lighter color on top of it, and expect it to result in the lighter color. Basically, all you are doing is packing more color molecules in the hair shaft with other dark color molecules. The result is darker hair.

Okay, let me further explain it.

Anatomy of Hair

Hair Anatomy

Your hair is made of three parts: the medulla and the cortex (which are the inner parts of the hair shaft), and the cuticle (the scale-like protective covering). Melanin (color pigment) molecules are located in the cortex.

The ammonia in hair color lifts up the scales of the cuticle, allowing the color pigments to get up in the cortex. In permanent color, the molecules are meant to last forever. In other words, they’re packed in like sardines.

Why Color Won’t Lift Color:

So back to the example I used with Clarice.

When she first colored her hair brown, the hair dye packed a ton of brown color molecules into her hair shaft. She probably lost a few molecules when she washed her hair, but they were still pretty intact.

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 stayed in her hair. 

Color is not meant to lift color out of hair; it’s just meant to deposit pigment.

But I’m sure you are wondering to yourself right now, “yeah, but how do people go from dark hair to blonde hair?” The answer is that they either had virgin hair to begin with or it was previously lightened or stripped.

Virgin Hair

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 previous color has grown out. In either case, the hair that you see has no artificial color molecules in it.

Outgrowth is virgin hair. If you apply color to your hair with outgrowth, it can leave you with hot roots.

Color can lift virgin hair, but it’s usually not so dramatic. The reason is that most color lines will only lift the hair a few levels lighter than the natural color.

High-lift blondes are used to go more than a few levels lighter, but still as aren’t effective as bleach. 

But high-lift blondes won’t even work on previously colored hair, or they could be unpredictable. They could even turn your hair green in that case.

How To Go From Dark To Light:

Have no fear. You can still lift the dark color out of your hair. Just be aware that it might take multiple processes. 

I always recommend having a professional take your hair lighter, as I’ve seen people mess their hair up too many times. Be realistic about your expectations and remember that patience is a virtue.


The next option is to bleach your hair. I know that the thought of bleach freaks most people out. 

However, bleaching your hair shouldn’t do too much damage if done correctly. If Clarice had bleached her hair to the level of blonde she wanted, and then applied the color she wanted to her hair, it would have been much better.

Using the marker analogy, pretend that I used nail polish remover (which, according to the interwebs, removes marker from paper) first, and then colored the blonde over that spot, it probably would have been more blonde.

Color Stripper

The final option is to strip the color out of her hair. Stripping the color removes the packed molecules, revealing her natural color (to an extent). Depending on how dark it is, how many times it has been colored, etc., it could take multiple processes to remove all of the color.

Read more about it here:

How to Lighten Dark Hair to a Light Blonde Color
The question I am asked the most often is how to lighten dark hair to a light blonde color? Let me take you through the steps...

Your Turn:  Did you enjoy this post? I’ll love you forever if you share it with your friends on your favorite social media website!

What do you think about the golden rule of lifting hair color? Does it make sense why color won’t lift color? Do you still have questions? I’d love to read your feedback in the comments section below…

Pin This Article!

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let me explain exactly how hair color works with this clever analogy...

352 thoughts on “The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color”

  1. Hi there! So on the subject of lifting virgin hair with color, I have my natural dark blonde hair (about a level 7 I’d say, maybe between 7 and 8) dyed to a nice level 9-9.5 light blonde. I love it to bits, but regrowth is something I’m a little iffy on tackling. I know bleaching them to just lift about 2 levels is overkill and high lift dyes are probably much too strong as well, but how much lighter of a dye should I select when I want to dye my roots to match the rest of my hair? Should I go a level lighter than what I want? Two shades lighter?

    • Hi Audrey! Thanks for the question! Theoretically, if your hair is a level 7, and you want to lift it 2-3 levels, you’d just pick out the target color within the level 9 range, and then use a 20v or 30v developer to lift 2-3 levels. Hope that helps 🙂

  2. Hi Hollee!

    I need your advise, I previously colored my virgin hair using a red pravana permenant color with 10 vol. it literally lifted like one level. Even if I was to use the remaining color with a 30 or 40vol, it’ll still come out darker in the end??? Please let me know what you think thank you!

    • That is a really good question! It really depends on what level your hair is now, what your target level of the color is, and what level the color you are using is. I would say that typically using 30 or 40v won’t lighten your hair color (unless the color you are using is a much lighter color.. in which case it might lighten it a little bit), but it probably won’t make it much darker. I would guess that it would make the color look more faded and won’t be a preferable result.

  3. Hi Hollee,

    I have naturally black hair and I want to lighten my hair so when I dye it colour will show up but I don’t want to use bleach on my hair. WH AT should I do??? Ps I have virgin hair

    • Virgin hair can be lifted with color instead of bleach. What type of color are you wanting? You can probably use a high-lift version of blonde or red (I wouldn’t expect to be platinum blonde without bleaching… but high-lift can definitely lighten it). If you are doing it yourself, there are some L’Oréal colors from Sally Beauty Supply that are specifically made for naturally dark hair. Hope that helps!

  4. Appreciate any help. I visited a salon for help to go lighter buttery blonde. My level 6 roots had been retouched with Wella Koleston 8/0 and I had slight freehand highlights. Walked out with not much change. Same level 8 base with slight foiled highlights light blonde. Now that my roots are growing out, I’m reluctant to retouch with 8/0. Would it work for me to use Koleston 9/0 to lighten roots? What could I possibly do to refresh the ends?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi! I have light brown hair naturally and got a full head of highlights about four months ago. I wanted to brighten my blonde but also had about two inches of brown roots. I used a highlift color on my whole head. My blonde looks great but roots are strawberry/ orange. I then used a wella toner. I didn’t see a ton of difference.

      Can I fix this with out bleach? Can I dye or tone with something ashy? I’m leaving for vacation of a lifetime and don’t wanna have bad hair. Thank you so much!!!!

      • It’s really hard to say without seeing your hair, but do the roots blend in with the highlights, or are you just applying the high-lift in foils, where the highlights are? If you are doing foils, I would maybe think bleach would be the best bet (if you use 20v and don’t leave it on for too long, it shouldn’t do too much damage). However, this process is really tricky since bleach expands and can bleed out of the foils if you don’t know what you are doing (which will lead to stripes in your hair)…. Which leads me to say that I would probably recommend having somebody else do your hair for you. If you don’t mind that the roots blending into the highlights, and aren’t using foils, I think you might be able to get away with re-applying a high-lift blonde, although that would not be my first option. I really hope this helps and everything turns out okay!

  5. Hi I just recently got my highlights done at an upscale hair salon I paid $300 for beautiful blonde highlights some strands got a little brassy so I used a Wella t14 instead of the normal t18 that I use and it got on my highlights now some of the blonde is an ugly brassy/brown color I want to cry I’ve washed it with all kinds of stuff and the toner is still there. What can I do or do I just have to wait til it washes out on its own I it even does that?

    • You could possibly do a “soap cap” but I don’t know what your hair looks like so I can’t know how well it would work. If your hair is bleached with some toner in it, it should lift right out. However, if you get it on the hair that isn’t highlighted, it will lighten that too and make your hair look worse. If you do attempt to do it yourself, I would be extremely careful that you only put it on the areas that are highlighted. A soap cap is where you mix bleach with shampoo (you can do a bit of low level developer as well). If you don’t want to go that far, I would just use a good clarifying shampoo on your hair and let it sit for a bit until it comes out. It might take a bit, but it will be the best way to do it. If you were unhappy with your highlights (especially if you paid $300), I would go back to the salon and talk to the hairstylist. They would usually rather fix it and make sure you’re happy than loose you as a customer. Good luck! I really hope it gets fixed soon!


Leave a Comment