A beauty consultant and former hairdresser by profession, Jayne has been advising on cosmetics and skin and hair care for over 20 years.
How to Bleach Dark Hair
Every woman should try being a blonde at least once in her life—after all, blondes are said to have more fun. But if your hair is naturally very dark, the results of bleaching can be disastrous. Even hairdressers find it difficult to turn a brunette into a true blonde. That, however, doesn't mean it's impossible. In fact, it's quite easy if you know how.
But forget regular bleaching kits from drugstores intended for home use. They’re not strong enough for dark hair. Even after two or three applications, they never lighten beyond orange or a brassy yellow and cause untold damage. It's best to go to a beauty supplier where all necessary components can be purchased separately according to your individual needs. Or you can order a kit like Manic Panic's Flash Lightning over the Internet. Unlike regular kits, it's available in 30 and 40 volume strengths.
Before You Bleach Your Hair
But because such harsh chemicals are necessary to bleach dark shades to a true blonde, you'll need to make sure your hair and scalp can withstand them. Not doing so is a common mistake that can lead to unpredictable color results and irreparable damage.
In order that your scalp is less prone to chemical burns and abrasions, it's best not to shampoo for a couple of days before bleaching. If you can't leave your hair unwashed for even a day, apply a deep conditioning product, preferably a hot oil treatment, at least 12 to 24 hours prior.
And wait at least a month after perming or straightening, otherwise your hair will become brittle and break.
Unfortunately, there's no way of preventing allergic reactions, so do a patch test before carrying out a chemical treatment.
- Cleanse your inner elbow or behind one ear with a soap-free wash lotion and dry.
- Mix a tiny portion of the bleaching product, dab onto the cleansed area and allow to dry. If using, do the same with your toner.
- If you experience blistering, swelling, redness or any other irritation during the next 24 hours, remove the product immediately with cold water and under no circumstances proceed with the treatment.
What You Need
Another preparatory step that ensures best possible results is checking that you have all necessary tools and products at hand:
- Latex or plastic gloves
- A bowl made of glass or plastic (never use metal)
- A tinting brush
- A plastic rat tail comb
- Sectioning clips
- Petroleum jelly to protect your hairline.
- Peroxide cream developer of appropriate strength (see below)
- Purple or blue bleaching powder (purple and blue help reduce brassiness, but white will do if nothing else is available)
- A plastic cap or a plain, transparent plastic bag large enough to fit over your hair. You could also use aluminum foil.
- Color toner (one in a light, cool blonde shade, and one in a medium ash blonde in case you have to bleach twice)
- Balancing shampoo (to restore your hair’s pH balance after bleaching)
- Protein balancing conditioner
- Purple shampoo and conditioning products to eliminate or at least play down warmth and yellow tones
Cream developer and bleaching powder are included in the contents of most kits—I recommend Manic Panic's Flash Lightning for dark hair.
If you buy from a beauty supplier, avoid a product called Red Gold Corrector. It used to be great when mixed with bleaching powder and developer to prevent brassiness. Unfortunately, the formula was changed and color results became unpredictable.
Peroxide Cream Developer Strengths
Implement cream developer strengths as follows:
- If you want to lighten hair that is naturally blonde, you need 20 volume cream developer.
- To bleach light to medium brown hair, you need 30 volume. When bleaching close to the root, 20 volume may suffice.
- For dark brown to black, you need 30 or 40 volume depending on hair texture (30 for fine hair and 40 for coarser types), which gives maximal lift. Never go beyond 40 volume—it will burn your scalp and destroy your hair. When bleaching close to the root, 20 or 30 volume may suffice.
- Ideally, the strength of your toner should be 10 volume. This deposits color without lift. Some toners, however, work best with 20 volume.
Deposits color only
1 - 2
2 - 3
4 - 5
Instead of buying developers of different strengths, you can dilute with water. If you dilute 40 volume developer with water to a ratio of 1-to-1, it will become 20 volume. If you dilute 1-to-1 again, it will become 10 volume.
The only disadvantage of diluting is that the developer becomes runny, which can make it difficult to work with.
How to Bleach Dark Hair in Six Steps
The above video uses a variation of the method I describe here. It's particularly suitable if you have long hair.
As pointed out in the video, you may find it difficult to bleach your hair properly on your own, so invite a friend to help.
First, divide your hair into four sections—two at the front, and two at the back of the head—and secure with clips. You won’t be able to do this if your hair is very short.
Now mix the bleaching powder and cream developer according to the directions on the product packaging. A ratio of 1-to-2 respectively is usual, e.g., 3 oz powder and 6 oz developer. If the mixture is too fluid, add more powder. It should, however, be runny enough in order that the hair can be properly coated.
This is where it gets tricky and why you need someone to help. You also have to work very quickly during this and the next step, or your hair color will turn out uneven.
Starting at the back of your head, brush on the bleaching mixture working from the hair ends to the roots, but don’t cover the roots yet.
This obviously isn’t possible if your hair is short, but start at the back of your head nevertheless, since this is where your hair is naturally at its darkest and takes longest to lighten.
After you’ve worked through all four sections, apply the bleach to your roots. It's recommended to reduce developer strength by 10 if using 30 or 40 volume.
Starting at the back of your head, expose your roots by systematically parting and flipping your hair with a rat tail comb or the tip of a tinting brush. Work from the top of your head to the nape of your neck in the back sections, and the center to the sides of your head in the front sections. To avoid chemical abrasions, take care not to get the product on your scalp.
Why are the roots left until last? Because the heat from your head causes the bleach to develop more quickly than it does further down the hair. The color would turn out uneven if you were to cover your whole head at once.
Now place a plastic cap, bag or aluminum foil over your hair—the heat that develops under this will boost lift.
Your hair will go through various color stages as the bleach does its job. First, it will turn from its natural dark color to orange, then from orange to yellow, and finally to light-yellow. Check the color every 10 minutes. How long this will take varies from person to person, depending on hair texture and color. On all accounts, the bleach stops working after 60 minutes. Leaving it on for longer will only damage your hair and scalp with no further lightening effect.
You may only reach orange or dark yellow during the first treatment if you have really dark hair, especially if it has a natural red or coppery sheen. In this case, wait a month, then bleach again to achieve a lighter shade.
As soon as your hair has reached the light-yellow stage (or if 60 minutes have elapsed without your hair reaching this stage), rinse under lukewarm water.
If you're satisfied with the color and don't wish to tone, apply a balancing shampoo and protein balancing conditioner. Otherwise, wait until after you've toned.
Toning and Neutralizing the Warmth
If you're naturally dark, you won't get your hair up to a true icy or platinum blonde the first time you bleach. It will still have too much warmth, especially at the back. Apply a toner in a cool shade like light ash, silver, or pearl to neutralize this. Do this even if you want a warmer shade, like a golden or buttery blonde. Applying a warm tone will leave you with strawberry blonde at best or brassy blonde at worst.
You should apply toner in exactly the same way as you applied the bleach. It usually takes 20–30 minutes to develop, but refer to the instructions provided in the package contents. Always leave longer to develop at the back where brassiness is most prevalent.
When you touch up your roots after four to six weeks, you’ll be able to get rid of the warmth, which will allow you to choose from a wider range of colors. Until then, regular use of purple shampoo and conditioning products may help.
But What If Your Hair Isn't Light Enough?
If your hair hasn't reached the light-yellow stage, in spite of leaving the bleach a full 60 minutes, rinse and apply an ash toner. This will counteract the yellow and orange tones, and give you a color presentable enough to face the world until you can bleach a second time. Your toner should be at least as dark as your current color, since it has no lightening effect. Therefore, think in terms of medium ash blonde.
After a month, you can bleach again and tone to the shade you actually desire. But first, your hair needs to recuperate. If you don't wait, especially if you’ve used 30 or 40 volume developer, your hair will become porous and break.
If you do decide to bleach a second time without waiting, use a 20 volume developer. Avoiding the roots, apply only to the darkest lengths. Check every five minutes and rinse when the color appears relatively even.
How to Bleach Your Roots
Repeat steps one to six above, but leave out step three. If you bleach your whole head every time your roots need touching up, your hair will eventually disintegrate!
Depending on hair color and texture, use only 20 or 30 volume developer.
Your roots shouldn’t take as long to lighten as your whole head—developing time is usually about fifteen minutes shorter. Nevertheless, check the color every ten minutes as you did the first time you bleached.
When you do your roots for the first time, comb the bleach through your hair to the ends ten minutes before you rinse. This should get rid of unwanted warmth.
Apply toner in the same way—first to your roots, then comb through to the ends ten minutes before rinsing.
You should bleach your roots every four to six weeks. Doing so more often will damage your hair, while waiting too long will leave you with more than just roots and be as difficult to lighten as your whole head was the first time you bleached.
Continue to use purple shampoo and conditioning products between treatments to keep your color looking fresh.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Jayne Lancer
Jolene Patmanathan on July 08, 2020:
Thank you so much for explaining how to bleach hair and giving a detailed article. I have been struggling to find information. It's surprisingly difficult to find instructions on the basics of bleaching roots and lengths. Thanks again
PK on April 14, 2020:
Hi! I have dark brown/black hair with white/grey roots. I want to use the blonde/platinum color with the grey roots. I would follow your directions except would not do the roots.
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on November 10, 2019:
I'm afraid I can't advise without seeing you, SaraAnne444. I recommend consulting a hairdresser who will be able to treat according to the product previously used and the condition of your hair.
Someone on November 01, 2019:
Thank you! this was helpful!
SaraAnne444 on October 31, 2019:
How do I do this with purple as my hair color right now? I have 2 inches of brown and 8 to 10 inches of purple faded in some areas and a little deeper in others. I had it bleached blonde before I put in the purple a couple of months before purple. I want it back blonde. Help please.
sonya on August 22, 2019:
thank you for answering everything comes to safety and application
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on May 16, 2019:
@Naomi: Since your blonde color has been achieved with foils, I can't answer properly without seeing you. I'd probably recommended getting it done for the first time by a hairdresser; you need to make sure the right toner is used in order that the color is even. There might also be more dark in the length than you realize, which would need lightening without damaging the rest of the hair.
riotgirrl on May 10, 2019:
Damn, I so glad I found you! I'm in the process the process right now and you answered every question I had. Not to mention the steps you provided are on point! Thank you so much for helping.
Aniya on September 30, 2018:
Thank you so much this was so helpful. You're amazing.
Gerry on September 23, 2018:
Thank you a lot usefull information, feel better about the How and Why.. thank you
Naomi on July 29, 2018:
Can you opt to just bleach your roots/regrowth yourself if you have usually had your hairdresser do foils in your hair in the past? My hair is naturally a dark brown but all the length of it is a lovely blonde colour now after getting foils done gradually. Yet now I'd just rather get roots done every 4-6 weeks. Is this possible? Thanks
Allyson Fawn on February 11, 2018:
Fantastic article! Thank you for the step-by-step instructions. As a brunette who prefers to do my own color, and has bleached incorrectly previously, this is a huge help!
TT on March 14, 2017:
The step by step article was well written.. Thank you
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on September 27, 2014:
Really very well done!
Michelle Scoggins from Fresno, CA on September 26, 2014:
Thanks Jayne that is me on the avatar :)
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on September 26, 2014:
Thank you, Mdscoggins! If that's you in your avatar, your hair looks great! Yes, my intention in this article was to save people the frustration and damage often caused when trying to bleach dark hair to blonde.
Michelle Scoggins from Fresno, CA on September 26, 2014:
Hi Jayne I currently bleach my hair to a platinum color and I'm naturally dark. It really is a pain but I love the outcome. Being a past hairdresser I really appreciate the most basic steps you include that can be very helpful for the person that is inexperienced with color and bleach. Great article. Voted up.
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on May 31, 2014:
Glad you found something new in it, Moonlake. Thank you very much for the vote up, for pinning, and for taking the time.
moonlake from America on May 30, 2014:
Great information and so much I didn't know about. Voted up and pinned.
Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on May 09, 2014:
Thank you, Cyber Shelley! Yes, it can look very good if it's done well.
Shelley Watson on May 09, 2014:
I did bleach my hair when I was in my early 20's. Well the hairdresser did, I loved it and most people didn't believe I was naturally dark. Lots of fun. Up, interesting and useful