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…

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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! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


386 thoughts on “The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color (What You Need To Know Before Dyeing Your Own Hair)”

  1. Hey my hair is currently copper red I used 6rc on it for the past 6 months or so prior to that it was blonde and brown my natural color is medium to light brown. Where I live we are on stay at home orders and no salons are open and I am tired of my red hair, I have used color strippers in the past when my hair has been red it always turns a yellow orange I usually dye it brown and leave it alone but I want a blonde color nothing major just a honey or champagne color once I strip it do I tone it with an ash blonde or do I dye it using and ash blonde and do I use 10,20 or 30 volume developer any help would be appreciated

    • Since you’ve been coloring your hair red for a while, it will probably take a process to get the red out of your hair. You can definitely strip it and tone it, but I don’t know if it will be the shade of blonde you want until it’s gone through a few processes. Just remember that it won’t happen overnight, but be careful to give your hair time in between processes so it can heal and recover. Hope that helps!

  2. Hi, I had level 1/2 hair that has been bleaChed once, And lifted with a level 12 highlift color. So the question is will the hair lift more if i were to dye it with the same highlift cOlor?

    • It might lift a little bit, but it’s hard to say without seeing your hair. If your hair is a level 12, I would advise against bleaching it and don’t know if it will get any lighter. However, if it only lifted to an 8 or something like that, I would probably use some bleach with a low-level developer and watch it very carefully. Do a lot of deep conditioning before and after. Hope that helps!

  3. Hi, i have got level 9 blonde hair – Just past my shoulders.
    I Have 2inch Virgin roots at a level 5/6 not too dark but not light either.
    I want to lighten my Roots to a level 10 and then lift my ends (already level 9) to a platiNum white colour.
    Am i applying 6% Vol 20 developer ratiod with bleach and then a toner over the full head?
    Please help!!!!

    • – i Am thinking of applying vol 20 6% Crene developer 1:1 ratio With bleach for my Roots.
      – waIt for them to reach desired lift colour as they will lift faster due to The heat from scalp
      – after thIs i was going to mix a toner with 6% Vol 20 developer and water ratio 1:1:1 to tone Hair and roots together
      Is this corRect?
      Im going to be using XP100 Intense radiance reme developer 6% vol 20, blue bleach powder and then a XP100 intense radiance permanent hair colour 11.00 super light platinum Blonde 100ml

      • I think that sounds like a good plan for the bleach… 20v just on the roots. Try not to overlap the previously colored hair, which could cause breakage. When they get to the same level as the rest of the hair, I’d put a mixture of bleach, shampoo, and developer on the rest of your hair for 5 minutes to gently lighten it up. After rinsing that out, you can tone all of your hair… I’d follow the instructions of the manufacturer for the toner. Hope that helps!

  4. 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 🙂

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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!


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