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! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


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

  1. 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.

  2. I used cHi infra high lift to go from level 6 oraNge to a 9 yellow. I then put a muxed 6 dark ash and an 81 light blonde. It is dt too light and the ashinesS has The TINIEST greeN tint only noticeaBle in certain Light.. i can live wit the level 7 lightness but not the tone. Need mo warmth. Used olaplex the whole time. This was a multi process from level 4 to 9. I did use chi the first few sessions i sh h and it w have lighten faster. At 7 ash can i just 7n or 7W to change the tone

  3. I fiNally gave in and took my DAUGHTER to get some pUrple in her blonde hair. The stylist took it all the way to the top, just a couple inchEs from her roots. It caMe out purple/jet black. Tried a color rmeover, it lifted some but was still very dark. Someone tried some kind of “less damage packet” abd ut tunred red/orange. Shes had That color for mOnths. Wanted to try a bleach bath since it Had been a couple months since the black/purple. That diDnt do anything. Went back to get a better bleach and the girl tells me to get a color lifter/dye which After it didnt do anythiNg i found your artiCle and understand now its Not goIng to do anything. Do i try Just bleach now? Then a toner or hair dye to get back to more of her natural color. Some would say just take her to a PROFESSIONAL But that “professional” is why were in the boat now….Thanks!

  4. i used 7nn and i want to go back to what i use to use which is 811. it has been 5 weeks since i colored and it is faded. can i just put the 811 back on my hair?


    • Hi hollee, I’ll just take a chance that someone is still monitoring this post.. I’m a level 5, 6 or 7 depending on the color chart AND it pulls a lot of REDDISH-orange when it’s been Lightened in the past. I have not had any. Chemical processes done in over a year and a half and now have “virgin” hair. I want some HIGHLIGHTS that are only 2 or 3 levels lighter, with cool undertones without using bleach as my hair is very fine. Most HIGHLIFT blonde I’ve looked at are levels 10 or above. Do they make highlight blonde in the lower levels? Pravana Chromasilk has one step HIGHLIFT color with violet toners built IN, but they look like higher levels than I want to go. I bought a box of highlift light cool brown thinking that I could combine that with 30 volume devloper and get a few levels lighter but if the box color is already my natural color, it probably won’t lighten at all. What would I need to get some cool toned highlights 2 or 3 levels lighter without bleach?

      • If u read Hollee’s article you understand you CANT.
        Lift the strands you want w 30 v. and bleach powder til it is pale butter /white — then add the Chosen colour you Wish the highlights were only 2-3 shades lighter than yours and It will be perfect!
        YoU can pick a toner which is the final colour you wish the highlights were and just deposit in that colour w 10 volume after washing out bleach process…. Even with fine hair, the tiny little strands you’ve picked out to bleach are not going to be that damaged if you are adding a colour back in (that takes it down to a couple shades lighter than natural). It will refill the cuticle And at least be accurate – just make sure you condition after and start by just picking out 6 to 10 strands of very fine highlights …

        as your hair grows out you can re-tone w that same colour to freshen up the part you previ bleached and wait a bit until you have enough root length to repeat The process with bleach and toner, from fresh…. I do just the toner step for about an inch of roots (that therefore isn’t lifted as much as the original highlight that you’ve done) But is still lighter than my natural hair, somewhere in between—- instead of doing a two-step process on just a bit of roots… This a is no fail wAy at least, where you know you will get the exact colour highlight you want…. you can try a platinum box colour that still will only lift your hair slightly -because it is colour on colour like Hollee described, – but you will then have to tone it anyway to the proper shade — and if you’re not a professional you won’t know what you need to compensate for that ‘colour lift’ instead of the proper bleach lift (that Will most likely be super brassy or orange).

        It’s not difficult to just pick out a few strands yourself and do the correct two-step process when it is not much hAir… it’s the only way to get the exact colour highlight you want by starting with a clean slate of “zero color“ or (almost whte./ i.e. bleached)

        toning out the mystery colour you’ll get by only lifting with 10 or 20 volume initially (to go only 2 shades lighter) doesn’t work because you’re depositing colour into hair that still has colour in it…it hasn’t been Removed with bleach. You can lift a test highlight with something that has a 10 or 20 volume base, just know it will be your natural colour only partially stripped and will most likely be a more rusty/orange version of your natural hair as is. (Which cant be toned).

        Hope that helps a bit…. Didnt check the date -this post is probably far too late!

  6. Hi holler!
    My daughter colored my dark brown hair with black box permanent color. I was ill at the time and wasn’t aware of this. Were both amateurs. Seriously. I want my hair back to dark brown. I let my hair grow without additional COLORING or heat for about 5 months. My new growth is gray and about 3-4 inches. Would i still have to have the black hair color lifted prior to coloring with the dark brown?

  7. I have virgin level 7-8 neutral ash hair And would like to add some foil highlights that look lighter and natural. How WOULd you suggest i do this? With bleach, lightening cream or dye? I have a sensitive scalp.

  8. i have hair which was previously dyed dark brown at the roots to MID-LENGTHS with dark blonde balayage at the ends. i used an ash HIGH-lifT cream with 30vol developer and my ends and roots lightened but the MID-LENGTHS are still dark brown. what should i do? do i have to use a powder bleach? if possible i want to use the method with the least damage. any suggestions would be appreciated xx

  9. I have a client who I used bleach and a lifter for blue black and they went in chlorine water and now its green. They want to try royal blue. do I have to bleach again or just use a lifter or put the color on top of the hair?

  10. So, I had virgin hair that was about a level 4. I attempted a diy balyage highlights with 30v bleach that lifted me to like an orangey level 7 and I “toned” with the ion 9A demi permanant color (my strand test had lifted to a 9 which is why I had bought the level 9 demi color but then I guess I didn’t saturate as well on my actual hair) it’s not terrible… kind of like caramel highlights but it’s still slightly orangey, and darker than I would have liked. Now I’m realizing that because it’s balyage highlights and they didn’t lift as much as I expected, I can’t really do a second bleach process hoping to hit the exact same strands as before and if I do an all over bleach I’ll end up with platinum highlights and the rest will be the orangey caramel color that the highlights are now, right?

    Because I only used a demi, and underneath is lightened virgin hair, could I use a permanent Level 10 dye to lighten all over or would that just do the same as An all over BLEACH? Or nothing at all? Id be happy with lighter highlights and keep my dark roots or even just all over, 8 or 9 blonde… I don’t really want to leave it like this but I’m at a loss for an exit strategy at this point… any suggestions would be very appreciated!! Tia!!!

    • Honestly, the best idea would be to have someone else so it. They’d be able to see the previously bleached sections and make sure you don’t overlap. However, if you feel super brave, you can always try to go over them again with bleach… just go slow and be very careful. I’d probably use a 20v developer and do smaller sections at a time. Hope that helps!


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