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The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color (What You Need To Know Before Dyeing Your Own Hair)

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…

💡TIP: Pin this article to your Hair Color board on Pinterest so you can always come back to it when you need to! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

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The Analogy

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.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

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.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

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.

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

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

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...

What went wrong?

The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color

Hairdresser coloring woman's hair in the salon.

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…

Hair Anatomy

Hair Structure Anatomy

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?

Woman coloring her own hair at home.

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

Woman with long, healthy 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 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

Woman coloring her own 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?

Color Stripper

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.


FAQ Icon
Can you lift hair color without bleach?

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.

How many levels can hair color lift?

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.

Can you lift hair color with hair color?

Definitely not. You’ll need to bleach your hair or strip the color out of your hair before attempting to go lighter.

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts Icon

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! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


💡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! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼

The golden rule of lifting hair color is that color won't lift color. Let's talk about the basics of hair color with this clever analogy...


Thursday 1st of June 2023

Thank you it was a very good description of lifting hair color.


Friday 12th of May 2023

What I don't understand is this "color doesn't lift" and how does this come into play with the developer %. Let's say you are now a level 5, and you buy a hair color level 6, that you want to develop with 9% (3 level of lift). Does this mean that your current 5 will go to an 8 or the hair color level will go to a 9? If "color does not lift", why does it matter what % of developer you get? I am confused. Basically I am now a 5 red violet, and I got a 6/66 & color that I was planning to develop with 9%. In my mind I thought that by using the 9% developer I will bring my current 5 to a 7-8. Will my final color be then 6 no matter what developer I use?


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!

Barbara moldenhauer

Wednesday 15th of June 2022

Yes This did help me understand why we use developer along with hair color. Thanks

Janice Skeers

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.