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 ofย bleachย 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,


โ–ถ๏ธŽ 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! ๐Ÿ‘‡๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘‡๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘‡๐Ÿผ


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

  1. My natural hair colour is dirty blonde. For many years I have been getting blonde highlights using Goldwell 11p high lift colour with 40 volume. then when I switched hair stylists She used Wella High lift colour (12/11) with 30 volume and also started doing a toner afterward. My hair always came out great. Recently I got my hIghlights done (Roots) but the hair stylist switchEd to Matrix high lift colour but Still used the same toner as she Has always used and my hair came out yellow And super brassy. This has never HAPPENED beFore. Iโ€™m getting married in a month and Iโ€™m panicking. I was originally thinking the solution Would be to redo the highlights (just the roots) with my usual Wella High lift colour and Then do an ash toner, But since reading your article im
    Worried putting more colour wont get rid of the brassy yellow Or May even Make it look worse by turning it green or something. I cant take any risks with my wedding so soon. I tried puRpLe shampoo but it dIdnt help much. My hair cant handle bleach, its very fine and bleach will cause it to brEAk. I dont care about making it lighTer, i just want the yellow brassy gone. What do you suggest??

    • Oh man… that’s tricky since you’re getting married soon. I would definitely go back to your stylist and see what she suggests since she knows your hair better than I do! I would think that maybe you should probably try toning it again or maybe even lifting the color a little more, but she can help you assess the condition of your hair and options. Don’t feel bad about talking to her about it, because I assure you that she wants you to be happy. I hope that helps and that you guys can get it fixed soon!

  2. I get my hair professionally colored using various shades of red every 3 weeks because it grows very fast. Its thick hair and I wash and condition every third day. Please tell my why the color bleeds so much — rinse water looks like cranberry or grape juice. This goes on for 3 weeks! The cuticle feels rough, hair is dull, and color is often too dark. At the end of 3 weeks the residue is finally out and the color and texture are great. Unfortunately now its time to color and the vicious cycle starts again. Usually I have just the roots done with no pull through to avoid over processing the older growth. I never had this problem with My former hairdresser (who retired). My current hairdresser uses a 20 vol developer and non ammonia permanent color. would a higher vol and ammonia based color resolve some of this problem. I am about 50 – 60% gray — more in the back, less on sides and around the face. this is a real nuisance — wet hair dripping color everywhere and staining towels.

    • It probably just has to do with the color she is using. Red color molecules are bigger than other color molecules, so it can’t penetrate as deep into the cortex, which makes it wash out easier than other colors. That’s why red tends to fade so easily. You wouldn’t want to use a higher developer, but it might be worth checking into a different color line. Hope that helps ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Hey Hollee! Thanks for such wonderful info. Ive got a somewhat ombre look going on right now with my dark brown hair going to bright orange (seriously). I was wanting to change it up a bit by switching to pUrple or pink. What is the best way to lift the color and eventually lighten up the natural hair underneath (it never got Lightened enough for pUrple to work)?

    Thanks in advance!!

    • I think you’ll probably have to bleach it out, but definitely give it time to heal in between processes and only bleach it if it can handle it. You can always try a test strand to see how it turns out before bleaching the rest of your hair.

  4. Hi
    Thank you for this amazIng Info. So, i have thick Brunette curly hair that has faded HIGHLIGHTS that are now mostly on the ends, from 8 months ago. I want to create dark brown violet ( matrix 3v) highlights. Would i need to use a 20 vol or 30 vol developer? Would i Mix the same developer in the bleach and color?

  5. Hello Hollee! I have a question. Quite a lot of people I know (including my mom and grandma) told me that, despite having dyed hair, they successfully lighten it (after a few applications) with another hair dye. They just waited for the initial colour to wash a bit off, not even completely. My question is: if my hair was dyed a 5.4 colour, and I managed to wash it off till reaching a 6.4, can I lighten it even more (after a few tries) by using a 7.4 dye with 30 volume peroxide? I mean, the hair isnโ€™t as soaked in colour as before. Why shouldnโ€™t the new colour attach? Thank you so much for your time.

    • Sometimes it does lighten, but it’s not predictable. There is no guarantee you’d get the color you’re trying to achieve. It may work, it may not work… but it probably won’t be as light as you wanted. My suggestion is that you can always do a test strand to see what’s going to happen before dying all of your hair. If it turns out okay, then you can proceed by coloring the rest of your hair. The other option is to lighten the rest of your hair with a “soap cap,” which is made of bleach, low-level developer, and shampoo. This helps lighten out some of the color molecules without doing much damage to your hair.

      Hope that helps!

      • Thank you very much for your answer! I’m definitely gonna do a strand test first. Have a nice day!!

  6. I am about a level 6 maybe a 7. The hair color i am looking at (pravana, not store bought box color) says โ€œlevel of lift: 1โ€ does this mean if i am a level 6 it will lift my hair to ONE LEVEL lighter? That is how i take it but i aM not super well versed in hair.

  7. Hi. My roots are a level 5 with about a hood inch of regrowTh. The rest is Heavily highlighted to about a 10. I want to lighten my roots maybe to an ash 7 or ash 8 with color and developer. Is that possible and what should i use? Any suggestions on how to soften the dark roots?

    • That shouldn’t be hard to do. You’ll just want to use a 7/8 ash on the roots (if you go with an 8, use a 30v developer to lift 3 levels… but if you go with a 7, use a 20v developer to lift 2 levels). For at-home color, I suggest ordering some color from Sally Beauty Supply… it’s more of a professional-grade than a box color, but you can purchase it without a license. I like the Ion color line.. it works well and is easy to use. I’d suggest using a “root smudge” technique to blend the color into your blonde hair. Here’s a good tutorial I found: Just remember that you don’t want to overlap the color on the blonde hair… just slightly blend it into the rest. Go slow and use small subsections. Patience will pay off! Hope that helps!

  8. Hey! I recently dyed my hair burgundy (5rv wella color tango). I used 20 volume developer and my hair is dark brown (or very dark brown). I can see the results on my roots but not on my ends (and some middles). I want to do it again so i can fix it and make it more burgundy but I’m not sure if to use 30 developer or 20 again?

    btw love your articles! They explained so much!

    • Thank you so much for the kind words! I’m glad to help! Is the dark brown color dyed that way? Or your natural color? I’m assuming it’s dyed… in which case, I would probably recommend using a soap cap (bleach mixed with 10v developer and shampoo) to lighten some of the color out of your hair and create more of a fresh canvas to work with. It won’t do much damage and should give you better results when you dye your hair again. I would also just use a 20v with the color after doing the soap cap. Hope that helps!

  9. My hair has been lifteD to a 9 or 10 lEvel, im trying for silver Color. My hair dresser tOned it to a medium silver, it faded very quickly, hence the champagne blonde i hAve now. Why is it THAT every time i try to tone with a purple or Even blue toner my Hair turns purple or blue not Silver?

    • It’s hard to say without seeing it and knowing what you’re using to tone it. They do make semi-permanent silver colors and toners you could try using instead of blue or purple. Blue and purple are meant to tone out brassy colors, but if your hair is already light enough, your hair will just pull the blue or purple tones. Would your hairstylist tell you what she uses? Maybe that will help! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. just wondering, i used colour to lift my natural 7 with an 8+30% vol. Recipe for disaster aka brassy blonde.
    so i went to a salon and they used high lift and my natural lifted well but the brassy is still very much there.
    I don`t know what colour they used but i decided to take the matters in my own hands and i bought colour 10 +30% emulsion and I want to atempt on lifting the brassy with that.
    it`s been around 3/4 months since i coloured myself and got the brassy result . Do you think i have a chance to lift that in the combination mentioned above?

    thank you!

    • It’s quite possible that it will lift your hair, but you typically can’t lift colored hair lighter with color. I would imagine that it wouldn’t help with the brassiness, but you can always try a test strand to see what it does, before coloring all of your hair. If you want to go lighter, you can lighten it with bleach and then tone it to the desired color. If you like the level you’re at, you can look at toning the brassiness. Hope that helps ๐Ÿ™‚

      • HoLLee, the High lift worked amazing !i wish i could upload pictures here to show you the result.
        I had a combination of white and yellow at the roots as i only applied the highlift there for 20 mins.
        I wanted to Reaply color with a 30% oxidant but stopped as i Thought it will damage the hair.
        Since it was a bit yellow i wanted to get a natural blonde out and so i got a pearl bloNde Toner wth 5% no lift .
        It brougt back the hair to a brasSy/ blue tone which im so So Upset about.
        I wonder , do you think it will wash off? Or When It will Ill get just the brassiness left?
        I am wonderIng wHat would be the soonest i could do High lift again? So i get Rid of the brass ..

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