How to Bleach Hair
Trying to Go Platinum?
If you have dark hair and wish to dye it blonde, you need to be able to use bleach. More than that, you need to know how to use it safely to mitigate any potential harm.
You don't have to end up as another bleach horror story, and by learning a little about how it works and what it can and can't do, you'll have hair that turns heads for all the right reasons.
How to Bleach Your Hair at Home Step-By-Step (With Pictures)
Before you bleach, you should think about what your goal is. Do you want to go medium blonde? Light brown? Platinum? Depending on what color your current hair is and what kind of bleach or developer you use, you could lift your hair up to seven levels in one session. (You can see more information about levels below.)
But you should also be realistic about it. You won't be able to go from super dark hair to the lightest platinum in one go.
Based on what kind of lift you think you'll be able to achieve in your hair, you should be ready with a dye afterwards to tone it to the color that you want it to be — otherwise, you'll get stuck with hair that looks, well, bleached.
- Tinting bowl or non-metal bowl for mixing the bleach and developer
- Old shirt that you don't mind getting bleach or dye on to wear during the process
- A friend or two to help you apply the bleach (not mandatory, but extremely helpful — and fun!)
- Hair clips to pull your hair back into quadrants
- Bleach and developer (see the notes below for more info on what kind to get)
- Toner and developer for after bleaching (if you're planning on toning right away). Depending on the toner you're using, you might be able to use the same volume developer that you used for the bleach.
- A deep conditioner for after you bleach (if you're not toning) or after you tone (if you are) to help mitigate the damage to your hair. Olaplex is a recommended brand.
You can get all these from beauty supply stores like Sally's, or you can order online. If you're getting stuff for the first time, you might shell out a little bit more to buy in bulk so it's cheaper the next time you do it.
1. Gather Your Supplies
Make sure you have everything, that you've read through all the instructions on all of your products, and that you've read this article carefully. Watch some YouTube videos too while you're at it.
2. Prepare Your Hair
Section your hair into quadrants and pin them up. To do this, make a part from the center of your forehead all the way to the nape of your neck with a tailed comb. Finish by taking another part from each ear to form the four sections and clip each of them out of the way.
3. Prepare the Bleach
To prepare the bleach, mix the powder together in a one to one ratio of bleach and your chosen concentration of peroxide developer, unless the brand you're using specifies a different ratio. Check carefully!
The product should be prepared and then used immediately as there is a chemical reaction taking place and it loses its effectiveness the longer you leave it sitting. Always use gloves when mixing and applying bleach to avoid the risk of causing chemical burns or irritating your skin.
To measure how much bleach you're using, you can either use measuring cups, use the measuring lines on your tinting / mixing bowl, or just eyeball it. The lines on the tinting bowl can be hard to read, so for your first time, you might consider measuring out the ingredients. Make sure you have measuring utensils you don't mind using for harsh chemicals. If you bought a tub of bleaching powder, it usually comes with a scoop.
You should also do a strand test to see how your hair and skin reacts to the bleach. This is where you choose a semi-hidden part of your hair to try out the product on.
4. Apply the Bleach to Your Head
Working from back to front on your head, and top to bottom on the individual sections of hair, apply the bleach with a tinting brush as quickly and as evenly as you can until your hair is completely covered (here's where having friends can help — this can take a long time!) Watching YouTube videos can be helpful as well to see how professional hair stylists (and home stylists) do it.
Note: Leave 1/4 - 1/2 inch between the bleach and your roots. Since the heat from your head makes the bleach work faster, your roots need less time to process. Otherwise, you will get "hot roots' — roots that are much lighter than the rest of your hair.
After applying to the rest of your head, go back and do your roots.
5. Let the Bleach Process
The length of time that you leave the bleach in to process is largely dependent on your goal. The only thing to remember is that it shouldn't be left in for longer than an hour.
If the bleach hasn't lifted enough pigment by that time, you will have to perform another application, and this shouldn't be done for at least a week, and only if your hair is still in good condition. Past this point, the bleach won't lift much more color as most of its lightening power has been expended.
All you really do is increase irritation to your scalp and cause more damage to your hair from the alkaline environment.
If the bleach has lifted enough pigment before this time however, wash it out immediately to stop the process and avoid any unnecessary damage now that you've reached your desired level of lightening. Bleach needs to be watched to avoid over-processing, and you should check it every 5 - 10 minutes.
Depending on your hair color, the bleach might make your hair seem lighter than it actually is. In the pictures, you can see that the hair seemed much more yellow before it was washed out. When dry, the bleached hair looked more orange.
Also, parts of your hair might lighten at different speeds. In this case, the hair at the top lightened more quickly (and more) than the hair at the bottom.
6. Rinse Out and Shampoo Twice
Once you've reached the maximum processing time or you've reached your desired level of hair color and it looks even all the way around your head, it's time to move on.
Bleach should be rinsed out thoroughly with plenty of cool water before you shampoo your hair. Any bleach that isn't rinsed out will continue to process and may cause damage to your hair, so it is important that you ensure it is all removed. Shampoo your hair twice to remove any remaining residue.
If you're going to be applying a toner immediately, avoid using conditioner. If you use conditioner before applying the toner, this can reduce the penetration of the dye and you may end up with brassier hair than you wish. Hair should be toned and then conditioner can be used after the toner has been rinsed out.
You can add a small amount of white vinegar to your conditioner to neutralize the pH imbalance that the bleach has caused. This is an effective way to close the cuticles and bring the hair back to natural balance much quicker. This will help make your hair feel smoother and look shinier.
7. Toner Time! Get Your Supplies
Toning can be confusing for first-timers. You might find it helpful to ask someone who's dyed their hair at home before about what kind of toner to use, or read reviews online of products you're interested in using.
There are also some good YouTube videos on it. Check out the "Toning Hair for Beginners" video from somegirljess.
In this example, Wella Color Charm Permanent Liquid Toners were used, but your toning process will depend on what toner and developer you're using, as well as what color and texture your hair is.
8. Mix the Toner and Developer
For the first set of pictures in the example below, one bottle of Wella Color Charm T-18 Lightest Ash Blonde and one bottle of Wella Color Charm T-11 Lightest Beige Blond were mixed together in a 1:2 toner to developer ratio and applied to dry hair (Note: The instructions say to apply to damp hair. That was skipped in this case, but you should follow the instructions!)
If you're using the liquid version of this product, you can measure out the 1:2 ratio by using the toner bottle as a "measuring" cup. Pour the toner into the tinting bowl, then fill up the toner bottle with developer and dump it in. Then, do it again.
9. Section Your Hair. Then Apply the Toner and Let It Develop
The toner was let to process for 30 minutes and then rinsed out. You can see how it turns purple-y as it processes.
In this example, the level of the hair was not light enough for the toner to remove all of the brassy tones. Both the T-11 and the T-18 need to have the hair lightened to a pale yellow in order for them to be effective. So, there was some effect, but it was minimal. Here's a chart for Wella toners so you can see what level your hair needs to be.
So, toning was attempted again. The T-27 Medium Beige Blond was mixed in with the leftovers of the other mixture (again in a 1:2 toner / developer ratio) and let process for 30 minutes, and then rinsed out.
The hair looked less orange as it dried, but it still retained some warmth because the level wasn't light enough for the toner to work (or for some other mysterious reason). Your hair needs to be very light for the T-18, T-11, or T-27 toners to work! (Again, look at the chart.)
Note: It is not recommended to tone twice like in this example! It caused scalp irritation. Only do it once in one day, especially if you're using a 20 vol developer. If you have to do it again, wait a few days (or a week if you can manage it).
Second note: Some reviewers have said that the ends of the hair absorb a lot of color very quickly from these Wella products. That wasn't true in this case, but you should still watch the toner closely to make sure your hair doesn't get darker than you want it to be.
10. Rinse and Condition
You don't need to shampoo after toning this way, but you should rinse well and condition! Condition, condition, condition!
Also, remember to condition your hair regularly after you bleach it. Weekly or monthly oil treatments with natural conditioners like coconut oil are fairly popular.
11. Air Dry
There are many people who successfully dye their hair at home, including bleaching and toning on their own. However, most people are able to get it right after at least several episodes of trial and error (just take a look at the comments to get a sense of how complicated it can get!)
If this is your first time, be forewarned that it will probably take you longer and be more difficult than you think it will be to get the results that you want. That said, it can be done.
Bleaching doesn't have to end in a horror story, nor does it have to damage your hair. To achieve the best results and maintain the integrity of your hair, remember to be safe when you use it, and to only apply it to hair that isn't already damaged. If you look after your hair like this, it will thank you by looking its best every day.
-Apply bleach quickly and thoroughly to guarantee even results
-Use the lowest volume of peroxide that will reach your desired shade
-Don't bleach your hair more than once in a one week period
-Once you've bleached, always follow up with toner and repairing treatments
More on How Bleach Works
Bleach powder is mixed with something called a developer that has hydrogen peroxide in it. This is what activates the bleach and creates an oxidizing environment when applied to hair. The concentration of peroxide (or developer) used is the major factor that determines the strength of the preparation, and this oxidation is the reaction that allows both bleach and permanent dyes to work.
For a permanent dye, this oxidation converts the dye into colored pigment that is embedded in the hair, thereby causing it to become a new color.
In the case of bleach however, the oxidation acts on the pigment already present in your hair to disperse it and lighten your natural hair color.
Lift Potential of Bleach
1 - 2 levels
2 - 3 levels
3 - 4 levels
Volume of Peroxide (Developer)
When preparing bleach, you need to add peroxide to it to activate it. These are usually called developers. The concentration of the developer is what will determine the maximum lightening potential of the bleach, and this should be adjusted to suit your current hair color and scalp sensitivity. Increasing the strength of peroxide will increase the lift, but will also cause a lot more irritation to your scalp, and more damage to your hair.
- 10 vol peroxide should only be used on hair that is already close to your desired color. You can use this concentration to lighten a color application that has turned out too dark, or for gentle lightening of 1 - 2 levels depending on the texture of your hair and your dye history. If you've dyed your hair a few times with dark colors, this concentration of peroxide will be ineffective for most purposes where any major lightening is required.
- 20 vol peroxide is fairly standard for bleaching hair. This volume of peroxide will lift a potential of 2 - 3 levels with low-end products. This level of lift is enough to take dark brown hair to a light brown color, or to take light brown to a light to medium blonde color. It isn't strong enough to lift dark brown or black hair to blonde in one process.
- 30 vol peroxide is strong enough that most people will notice irritation to their scalp. If you have sensitive skin, this formula is too strong for on-scalp application, but you can use it for foiled highlights as long as you don't apply it near your skin. Using of this concentration of peroxide will attain a lift of 3 - 4 levels.
- 40 vol peroxide, mixed with bleach, should not be used on your scalp at all. It shouldn't even be used for highlights in most cases. Whilst you can buy this concentration of peroxide, it's mainly produced for high-lift blonde dyes. It's not meant to be used with bleach these days, and you'll risk injury to your scalp and damage to your hair if you attempt to use it like that. This is one of the mistakes that spawns bleach horror stories.
Generic vs Salon Brand Bleach
The lift potential of the different volumes of peroxide is true for both generic and salon brands of bleach, however high quality salon brands like Wella and Indola offer bleach powder that can potentially lift up to seven levels in one bleaching. Use quality branded bleach to go lighter, with less damage and better results overall.
Hair Level and Base Pigment
Bleaching your hair won't turn you into the blonde that you want to be. You'll also need to know how to tone (or dye) your hair afterwards to get the shade that you want. And all of that depends on the hair level that you achieve and its underlying pigment.
All hair colors — from black to the lightest blonde — fall somewhere on the international color code level system. Black hair is defined as level one, the darkest possible hair color. Pastel blonde is a level ten, the lightest possible hair color.
All hair colors also have an underlying base pigment that contributes to that depth. In blonde hair, this base pigment is anything from pale yellow to golden orange. Black hair has a deep, dark red base.
When you bleach your hair, the color is stripped away to reveal this base pigment and you can estimate how much lightening has occurred by looking at the base color you've arrived at. You can also use the base color as a guide to what level of toner you should be using, and what color you will ultimately be able to reach after toning is complete.
As an example of how you would go about using this information, if you have identified that your current hair color is a level five, and you can lift it up to three levels with the bleach you've prepared, the lightest level you can reach is an eight.
You can then see that your hair is now a dark yellow color which tells you this is correct. Now that you know what level you've reached, you know that you'd need an ash toner that is a level eight or nine in order to neutralize this yellow pigment to a natural blonde color.
Should You Use Bleach at All?
- If your hair hasn't been dyed before and the color you desire is less than three levels lighter than your current hair color, you can use a dye instead of bleach. For three levels of lightening or more, bleach is more reliable.
- If you've dyed your hair previously, you will generally need to use bleach to lighten your hair regardless of what color you want, because dye can't remove dye.
Before You Bleach
You should have a goal in mind before bleaching your hair. By combining the concept of depth levels and the lifting potential of the different peroxide concentrations, you should arrive at an estimate of how much lift you can achieve when bleaching your hair, and this will help you avoid mistakes and not hold unrealistic expectations when you use the product.
Toning Your Hair to Blonde After It's Bleached
Toning is when you dye bleached hair to remove undesired colors like yellow, red, and orange by applying the colors purple, green, and blue (respectively). Toner itself is just another term for hair dye that you apply after bleaching (though there is some nuance there too — you shouldn't use just any hair dye to tone your hair).
For beginners, toning your hair can be the trickiest part of bleaching your hair. It's tricky for a number of reasons:
- You might have gotten bleaching results that were different than you expected, so your blonde bombshell plan has been derailed
- Part of your hair might be darker than other parts of your hair after bleaching, meaning the toner you got will work on some of it but not on all of it
- You can't tell what level your hair is, so you don't know what kind of toner to buy
Though it's not possible to answer all of those questions here, especially because so much of this is dependent on your hair and its history. However, here are some things that you should keep in mind in general
- Don't overestimate how light your hair will get with one bleaching. If you buy a toner that is meant for hair that is lighter than yours is, it won't work as expected. This is true for the very popular Wella Color Charm Toners.
- Be prepared to have your bleached hair be slightly different levels. If it works out for you and your hair is bleached evenly to banana yellow all over, congratulations! Otherwise, you'll have to deal with hair that is lighter in some areas and darker in others.
- Watch your hair carefully as you tone. In some cases you might accidentally dye it darker than you want it to be or to a shade you don't want it to be. For example, some people experience having their hair look grey if they leave on the Wella T-10 toner for as long as it's recommended.
Bleaching and dying your hair blonde is an experimental science, not a theoretical one! You're going to make mistakes, but that could happen at a salon too. Wishing you best of luck on your bleaching adventure!