How to Bleach Hair
- 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
- Always follow up bleaching with toner and repairing treatments
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 bleach works
Bleach powder is mixed with hydrogen peroxide and this is what activates it and creates an oxidizing environment when applied to hair. The concentration of peroxide used is the major factor that determines the strength of the preparation, and this oxidation is the reaction that allows bleach and permanent dye to work.
In the case of a permanent dye, this oxidation converts the dye into colored pigment that is embedded in the hair, thereby causing the hair 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.
Generic vs salon brands
The lift potential of the different volumes of peroxide is true for generic brands of bleach. High quality salon brands like Wella and Indola offer bleach powder that can potentially lift up to 7 levels with only 20 vol peroxide. Use quality branded bleach to go lighter, with less damage and better results overall.
Wella Blondor is a high quality bleach powder and will allow you to get your hair lighter, with significantly less damage. Always use a quality brand like this for best results.
Volume of peroxide
When preparing bleach, you need to add peroxide to it to activate it in order for it to work. The concentration of the peroxide 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. Use 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.
Lift potential of bleach
1 - 2 levels
2 - 3 levels
3 - 4 levels
Hair level and base pigment
If you're going to bleach your hair, an understanding of hair depth and underlying pigments will lead to better results. All hair from black to the lightest blonde falls somewhere on the international color code level system. Black hair is defined as level one, and this goes all the way to level ten, which is a pastel blonde close to white, and the lightest possible hair color.
As well as all hair colors having a level that tells you how dark the color is, all hair colors 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?
- If your hair hasn't been dyed before and the color you desire is less than 3 levels lighter than your current hair color, you can use a dye instead of bleach. For 3 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.
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.
To prepare the bleach, mix the powder together in a one to one ratio of bleach and your chosen concentration of peroxide, unless the brand you're using specifies a different ratio. The product should be prepared and then used immediately as there is a chemical reaction taking place and it loses 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.
When applying bleach, a quicker application will reduce the chance of uneven results. In order to apply it quickly you should section your hair out appropriately into four easily managed quadrants. These sections should be clipped back with sectioning clips when you're not working on them in order to keep them out of the way so you can focus on one section at a time.
To divide your hair into quadrants, 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. When you're ready to apply the bleach to your hair, take the first clip out and begin applying the bleach with a tinting brush.
Bleach should be applied to the quadrants from top to bottom, as quickly as possible. You should start at the back of your head and apply the bleach to thin layers until you've completely covered one quadrant, then gradually work through the remaining quadrants one at a time until your hair is completely covered.
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.
- How to dye hair blonde
Wishing you were blonde? Find out how to dye your hair blonde - the right way.
- How to tone blonde hair
Bleached hair looks its best when it's toned. Find out how to properly tone your hair to achieve a beautiful natural color.
- Caring for colored hair
Colored hair requires care to keep it looking good and prevent the shade from fading. Find out how to look after your new color.
Rinsing bleach out
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.
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.
Do you have a question about bleach, or need more help using it? Leave a comment for tailored advice...
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