The first time I bleached my hair, I (wrongly) assumed going from dark brown to light blonde would be a simple switch — after all, pop stars and actresses do it all the time, right? Cut to me crying in a corner on the eve of my birthday, after 11 hours in the salon chair (and $500 drained from my bank account), with hair that wouldn’t lift past a shade I can only refer to as “clown orange.” Thankfully, my colorist was able to fix me up a few days later and I learned a valuable lesson: going from brunette to blonde requires some prep, especially when you have naturally dark hair.
That was many years ago, and now that I’m a stable adult with patience (and a savings account), I’m ready to try again. This time, though, I’m being very thorough about the pre-bleaching process — which includes everything from in-person consultations to strand tests to repairing treatments — in order to ensure the best possible outcome. To help myself (and anyone else who may be toying with the idea of going lighter) navigate my way to the blonde hair of my dreams, I consulted three key industry colorists: Caitlin Richardson, Paris Jackson’s colorist and the owner of the blonding-only salon Blonde / Blond; Ricky Fraser, an editorial hair artist; and Ryan Sanger, owner of SANGER Hair Extension Studio.
“Everyone’s hair exists on a scale from dark to light, with one being the darkest black and 10 being the palest blonde, with varying shades and tones within that spectrum,” Fraser tells TZR. He says transitioning from one to 10 is possible, but it’s not always easy. “Considering which level you start at and where you want to end up can definitely determine the amount of time and money it will take to achieve the look you desire,” he says.
Ahead, colorists share everything you need to know about going from brunette to blonde when you're a natural brunette, including how many sessions to expect (hint: more than one) and how to keep your hair healthy while it’s in transition.
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An In-Person Consultation Is A Must
One of my biggest mistakes all those years ago was not having an in-person consultation with my colorist. Instead, I texted her a photo of my hair before we met and she estimated how long it would take and how much it would cost — but once I sat in the chair and she saw just how thick and porous my hair was, those estimates went out the window. “It’s essential to have at least a 30-minute consultation with your colorist beforehand,” Sanger tells TZR. This way, the stylist can assess your hair and let you know if your desired shade is even possible.
Have Your Colorist Do A Strand Test
“A strand test is always necessary before performing any sort of chemical service,” Fraser says. “By doing this, you are preparing yourself for what the possibilities are with your hair color and your desired look.” A strand test involves lightening a small section of hair to test how long it takes for your color to lift and see what shade it naturally lifts to. “Some clients’ hair naturally lifts very quickly,” he tells us. “But if you have coarse, jet black hair and you want to be ice white, it’s going to take a little more patience; maybe three or four sessions.” From the test, your colorist gives you a clear idea of what to expect from your transformation moving forward.
Disclose Your Entire Hair History
At my initial appointment, I told my colorist that I had “virgin hair” — AKA, hair that’s never been colored — when in truth, I had dyed my hair darker before but thought it had all grown out. Apparently, I still had a few inches of previously-dyed hair at the tips, which made it really hard for her to achieve a uniform shade of blonde across my entire head. “The biggest risk is if your colorist doesn’t know the history of your hair,” Richardson says. “Tell them everything — hot tool use, the root shadow you had once, the keratin treatment that you were told would ‘wash out.’” Armed with all the information, your colorist can take steps to sidestep any potential hair disasters.
Make Sure The Stylist Is Using The Right Lightener
“The lightener I use has milk proteins and moisture in it, so it doesn’t break the hair,” Sanger tells us. He suggests asking your stylist about what products they’ll be using to take your hair lighter — three keywords to listen for are “bond builders, protein treatment, and moisture,” he says, all of which work to keep hair healthy and intact. “I would definitely ask them what they recommend for maintenance and aftercare, too — it’s a lifestyle change for sure, and you want to be prepared.”
Know That It Will Probably Take More Than One Session
Talking your hair from brunette to blonde is a process — Sanger even has clients he’s been working with for over two years to safely reach the perfect shade of blonde. “If you have virgin hair, it may take just one session,” Richardson says. “If there is previous hair color or chemical services, and the desired shade of blonde is super light, it can take two or three sessions… or even more if the color was put over preexisting highlights or bleached hair.”
Don’t Dye Your Hair Before A Big Event
Or, you know, before a milestone birthday. “Schedule your color service at least two weeks before,” Fraser says. He notes that it’s very stressful on the hair to do multiple chemical services one right after another, so it’s best to leave time in between sessions — time with no important meetings or special appearances on the calendar — just in case your colorist can’t safely get you to your desired shade the first time around.
Texture Is A Major Factor
“Going light is possible with any type of texture or density, but a client with very coarse, curly hair may have to be a little more patient and willing to pay a bit more to safely go light,” Fraser says. “If a colorist tells a client with natural textured hair they can take them from a level one jet black to platinum in one session, they are definitely playing the client for a fool and taking advantage of them.”
Richardson notes this is because curly and textured hair types tend to be more dry, delicate, and porous (meaning that there are gaps in the hair’s cuticle which prevent it from holding in color and moisture).
If you have natural hair, Sanger recommends sticking to golden blonde shades, rather than ice or platinum. “Don’t push to that palest yellow,” he says. “It might not make it there — or if it makes it there, it might experience breakage six months down the road.”
Your Texture Might Even Change Post-Bleaching
My curl pattern changed after I went blonde and I wasn’t expecting it at all; but apparently, this is fairly normal. “If you have a wave or curl, the farther you go from your natural color, the more it affects your curl pattern,” Sanger says. “But with moisture, protein, and bond repair treatments, you can get your natural texture back.”
Consider The Maintenance
“You should touch up your roots every six weeks,” Sanger says. “Too soon could cause damage, too late could cause banding.” Banding is the term used to describe hair color that doesn’t blend well at the root. “The heat from your head affects how the color processes,” he explains. “If you have two inches of regrowth, that first inch is going to lighten nicely, but that second inch is too far away from the scalp, so it doesn’t have the same power behind.” If you’re not prepared to be in the salon every other month, balayage or highlights may be a better choice than full-on platinum, since these techniques grow out more naturally and require less upkeep.
Don't forget to factor price into the maintenance equation. Each session could cost anywhere from $250 to $850, depending on your hair and your colorist.
Prep Your Hair Beforehand To Make Sure It’s As Healthy As Possible
When you bleach your hair, you’re essentially damaging it — so making sure it’s at its healthiest pre-color is a must. For this, all three colorists recommend Olaplex, a bond-repairing hair treatment that strengthens strands. “There’s no such thing as too much Olaplex,” Sanger says and suggests at-home treatments “as much as humanly possible” before you bleach.
If you’ve dyed your hair darker before, do your colorist a favor by stripping away some of that color before your appointment. “If you’ve done anything that’s deepened your color — gloss, toner, permeant, demi, semi — you do want to get as much of that out as you can," Sanger tells us. “At home, you can use a clarifying shampoo, since that’s very stripping. Just make sure you use a moisturizing conditioner or treatment mask after.”
Be Prepared To Give Up Heat Styling — And High Ponytails
"Do you want to be able to blow dry your hair, or do you want to be platinum?” Sanger asks. "The darker you are naturally, the less you’re going to be able to heat style since the hair will be more susceptible to damage."
Another thing to consider: “Tight buns and ponytails can cause breakage where the elastic is,” the colorist says. Since your hair is in a more fragile state after going blonde, little things like that can make a big difference… but as the saying goes, “No great hair color was ever accomplished without making sacrifices.” (Or something like that.)
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