Maffew is a hairdresser, marketer, and dabbler in many things who enjoys sharing knowledge about the science of hair coloring and hair care.
Have you ever wanted to have cotton candy colored hair? Pastel hair colors are not only fashionable but also incredibly fun and diverse, allowing you to create unique, modern looks.
What Is It?
Pastel hair is any style that makes use of muted colors dyed over a base of pale hair for a subtle but colorful and unnatural look. As these styles are fairly light, any fading tends to take a lot of the color with it and pastels need more maintenance than most other hair colors to continue looking good.
The style is generally only going to be a good fit for you if you have enough time and motivation to devote to proper upkeep as not only is regular color refreshing necessary, but being a light shade also means most people will have dark roots growing in that need attention every few weeks.
How to Achieve the Look
To get pastel hair you need to start from a pale blonde base. Even natural blondes often don't have light enough hair though—most people will require some amount of lightening to achieve the style unless they already happen to have platinum hair.
If you have dark hair, you'll need to approach the process in two steps, which are:
- Pre-lightening your hair
- Dyeing your hair with pastel dye
Most of the different shades of pastel hair require a platinum blonde base and this means your hair needs to be either pre-lightened to a pale yellow or naturally platinum blonde, to begin with. Some shades can work on slightly darker hair depending on what color you want to use, but even that doesn't give very much leeway since you'll still need hair that is close to platinum even for those shades.
If you don't already fit these criteria, you'll need to lighten your hair with bleach and this will require a few items to ensure everything goes smoothly:
- High-quality hair bleach
- A tinting bowl and brush
- A comb and gloves
Lightener and Developer
Due to needing a very pale base to work with before dyeing your ideal pastel shade, a high-quality bleach product should be used. Cheaper generic products have more potential to cause damage or lighten inconsistently and less thoroughly and this is something you want to completely avoid as any inconsistencies in the application or processing will show through to the final color as unevenness or too much dark pigment left for the shade to show.
Where possible, use a salon-branded powder lightener on dark hair. If you already have light hair, to begin with, but not pale enough for pastel yet, you may prefer to use a cream or oil-based lightener because these products are gentler on hair that doesn't require as much raw power in terms of lift. These kinds of bleach products should only be used if your hair isn't starting from a darker shade, however.
As a general guide:
- Salon powder bleach with 20 vol developer can lift 7–8 levels which are enough to take dark brown hair to platinum in one process
- Generic powder with 20 vol developer can lift 2–3 levels or 3–4 levels with 30 vol
- Salon cream and oil lighteners are more variable as some products can still lift up to 6–7 levels but in most cases, you can expect a lot less lift in exchange for a gentler process with less scalp irritation
- Choosing the Best Hair Bleach
If you need some helping choosing the right product to lighten your hair properly, you can find it here.
Tools and Assistance
There are two main reasons pastel hair tends to turn out incorrectly, namely that the hair is left too dark or uneven. In light shades like this, any patchiness due to a clumsy application will be visible even if it's only slight. Getting a completely even and consistent lightening of every hair section is paramount to the perfect result.
For this reason, you will benefit greatly from using a tinting bowl and brush to apply your lightener product to sectioned hair. While doing this will speed up your application, you should also get a friend to help if you still can't do it quickly enough as this will effectively halve the time it takes to get your hair covered in lightener and will also provide another set of eyes to check over the process and ensure that no spots are missed.
Sectioning out your hair is very simple for this process as you can just use quadrants. These are easy to create by parting your hair twice—once straight down the middle and again along the top from ear to ear. This will give you 4 square sections of hair to work with systematically.
If you have all your tools ready and your hair sectioned, the last step before you can begin lightening your hair is to prepare your bleach mixture. To do this you'll need to mix the product with developer in the recommended ratio of the manufacturer for the brand you're using.
In situations where there is a variable ratio that can be used, such as with Wella Blondor, more developer leads to a runnier consistency. This can make it easier to get even coverage and work more rapidly, but it also has more potential to be messy if you're not confident with the application.
Mix your lightener at the exact moment you're ready to apply it because it will start reacting and lose potency from this point onward.
Applying the lightener is relatively simple if you've sectioned your hair out properly, but you need to work quickly to ensure the lift is even and consistent across every section of your hair.
To facilitate this, take sections of hair from each quadrant, one at a time, and brush a controlled but generous portion of bleach onto them. Simply repeat this until your hair is covered entirely and then gently massage it through the lengths to ends but not directly into the scalp.
If you have very dark hair, you can get a better application by applying out from the roots first and then applying to the roots mid-application as this area is closer to the scalp where the hair is warmest. Warmer sections will lighten quicker.
This may not exactly be easy though, leading to more potential unevenness if done wrong, so an alternative is to wrap your hair taut and close to your scalp with cling film to retain and equalize heat through every area. This will improve overall lightening and also help to keep the product moist while it processes.
The processing time is—at maximum—the time that the manufacturer states not to exceed. This is based on the idea that most of the lightening reaction will be spent by this point, and that exposing the hair to alkaline conditions will just lead to increased damage and irritation without significantly more lift.
Most people won't even need to reach the maximum processing time, however, especially if you don't have dark brown hair and are using a high-quality lightener. This is why checking your hair regularly every 5 minutes during processing is important.
As soon as your hair is a pale yellow banana color, rinse the lightener out because you've reached the right foundation for achieving pastel hair now.
- How to Bleach Hair
See here for an in-depth guide to lightening hair if you need more help before you start.
The next job is where you will actually dye your hair with your chosen shade of pastel. Of course, you should have a good idea of what you want to do before this point already, so having a look at what's available is an important step to take first.
Any color can be a pastel shade. In fact, you might not even want just one color but rather a mixed shade like lavender, and the only rule to follow is to choose what you find appealing or a shade that suits your features. There are some specific tips to follow though:
- Green or blue pastel hair requires the lightest base because these colors won't show properly on darker hair or where there's too much yellow pigment still visible.
- Pink, red, orange, and similar blends like mauve don't require as clean a base but can still turn out more orange than expected if there is too much yellow pigment left.
- Violet or lilac will be neutralized by too much yellow.
- Rose-gold and similar shades cover well over a slightly darker base and also require less upkeep.
Dyes used to achieve pastel hair tend to more commonly be demi-permanent or semi-permanent and will gradually wash out of the hair over a period of weeks. This presents some benefits to you though as these dyes are less damaging or not at all damaging depending on which you choose, and when the dye does fade you can choose a brand new shade.
Pastel shades are fairly trendy and have been for a few years now but there is inertia associated with a lot of manufacturers, so options can be limited depending on what brand you choose. One excellent option is Wella's Color Touch Instamatics though, a line of demi-permanent dyes designed to create fashionable pastel looks.
Another good alternative is to use a semi-permanent brand like Manic Panic that offers a lot of different ready-made pastel shades. Any already-light semi-permanent color can be turned into a pastel dye with a little experimentation though by diluting with conditioner, but this requires playing around with the mix yourself.
This is more difficult but can also be more rewarding as it does give the greatest possible range of colors since you can mix anything you want.
If you've chosen the shade you want and a good dye to use to achieve it, the last step of course is to apply the dye to finally get pastel hair. By this point, you've already done most of the hard work and the actual application is comparatively easy.
You'll need the same tools to start, consisting of a tinting bowl, brush, comb, and gloves. There are some differences in application depending on what kind of dye you prefer to use, however.
If you've chosen to use a semi-permanent pastel dye or create your own by mixing/diluting other dyes, this is very easy to apply. Because these dyes cause no damage to the hair at all and don't have a true processing time, a potentially uneven application will usually still result in a perfect result as long as you cover all the hair eventually and then leave it long enough to equalize.
This is possible because the dye doesn't develop—rather, it stains the hair. There is only so much staining that can occur to a single section so if you're slow or messy with the application just massage it through thoroughly and leave it longer so that the areas covered last have enough time to still reach the same shade.
You can apply this type of dye in whatever way is easiest for you and the only way you can really mess it up is by missing spots outright and not bothering to spread it through by massage after. It's literally that easy to use.
Apply the dye, massage it through your hair evenly, and leave it to sit for at least 20 minutes, although longer is better. You can then rinse it out and enjoy your new pastel hair.
Permanent or Demi-Permanent Dye
These kinds of dyes are less forgiving options for acquiring pastel hair but still easy to use. The key here is to apply the product quickly and evenly using a tinting brush—just like when you pre-lightened your hair. Your hair should once again be sectioned for this to ensure speed and an even result.
These pastel dyes will also have a development time you need to follow that is brand-dependent so check the guidelines for the product you're using so that you process the color for the correct amount of time. Leaving it too long can be damaging, whilst rinsing it out too soon will lead to the color not taking properly or fading quickly.
After development, wash the dye out and follow up with a good conditioner if you're experiencing any dryness. You can then style your new look.
- How to Dye Your Hair
Need more generalized help using and applying any kind of hair dye? You can find it here.
Maintenance and After-Care
Pastel hair requires lightening and the use of dyes to achieve. This process can be damaging to the hair and that is something that needs to be addressed afterward in order to keep your hair looking great.
Hair that is damaged will be more prone to dryness, frizz, and breakages which can be addressed with the use of a good protein treatment and conditioning products. Whether you get much damage at all is more likely if you're starting from a darker shade like brown, however, and it's definitely possible to get to pastel without any noticeable damage with lighter hair.
Regardless of which position you find yourself in, unless you dye your hair very frequently and have changed colors a lot in the past, a few simple treatments are all it takes to repair your hair.
A more likely problem that you will definitely face now that you have pastel hair is fading of your new color. Even if you use a permanent dye, this will still occur and lead to the loss of the style eventually but it can be managed.
In most cases, if you can manage to find a decent color refreshing shampoo, this is all that will be required to keep your color vibrant without any additional damage or hassle. This isn't possible for all shades though but mainly for some of the popular and less outlandish colors like rose-gold or lilac. Product lines like De Lorenzo Nova Fusion shampoo have a few different shampoos that can maintain pink or violet pastel shades.
In other cases, especially for shades like pastel blue or metallic colors, it will be necessary to reapply dye after a few weeks to reverse fading and keep the color for longer. If you can use a semi-permanent dye for this, this is ideal as you won't be causing any additional damage to the hair.
If you must use a more permanent option, you should do so only every 4–6 weeks if possible in order to minimize damage but the darker your natural hair color is, the earlier you'll need to address it before it's noticeable. Demi-permanent dye causes a negligible amount of damage to your hair but even this can gradually add up over time if you're careless.
Being both careful and mindful of how you treat your hair will ensure that your pastel hair continues to look and feel amazing.
Do you have a question about dyeing your hair pastel? Have a favorite shade or product to recommend? Leave a comment for tailored advice and share your insight with other readers!
© 2020 Maffew James
Sp Greaney from Ireland on September 11, 2020:
I love seeing people who have hair color like this. It always looks amazing. Your instructions are very good at explaining how to complete this process at home.