The last time I did anything drastic to my hair was about six years ago for my prom when I had my mom paint on highlights from a box dye kit. The results weren’t terrible, but since then I’ve kept my 4C curls in a fairly rigid routine of monthly washes and frequent protective styles. As summer approaches, folks often lean into the new season by lightening their strands a few shades to give that sun-kissed effect. Not wanting to be left out of the summer hair transformation fun, I began to research curly hair highlights and found myself booking an appointment less than an hour into scrolling Pinterest.
There are many different curl patterns and textures that fall into the category of curly hair and each requires a different type of care, attention, and products, so naturally coloring or highlighting curly hair will look a bit different than on straight hair. “As a colorist you cannot go on auto-pilot and just throw in foils in a standard pattern because the hair is not going to lay in segments,” explains Lead Educator at Madison Reed Shvonne Perkins. “You have to consider spacing as well. Even on the same head, those curl placements change day to day.”
The first step to ensuring a smooth journey to highlights is choosing the right salon and stylist to apply your new colored strands. I went to Madison Reed Color Bar for my partial highlight appointment. The salon specializes in professional hair coloring in-salon as well as pro-level products you can use at home. Madison Reed is one of the only hair color brands that is formulated with ‘Smart 8-free’ meaning the products are free of ammonia, PPD, resorcinol, parabens, phthalates, gluten, SLS, and titanium dioxide — ingredients that can cause damage when used in high concentrations on hair.
Before you book your appointment in anticipation of summer, here’s what you need to know about getting highlights on curly hair — from how to prep, what the process entails, and proper maintenance after.
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How To Prep Curly Hair For Highlights
Having unruly 4C hair, I’m used to professionals recommending that I come in with my hair detangled and sometimes even blow dried for certain styles (hint: those are not good stylists). In this case, the stylist at Madison Reed assured me that I should come in with my curls in their natural state — literally however it looked in the moment that I was speaking with her. “I paint on the highlights following the client’s curl pattern, deciphering where the sun will best hit and bounce off the color,” explains general manager of Madison Reed Flatiron Jacquetta Taborn. Your stylist should also consider the state in which you wear your hair most often when placing the highlights to determine the best placement.
How Highlights Affect Curly Hair
If you’re getting highlights on your curly hair for the first time there are a few things to consider. Firstly, there’s always a risk of damage when coloring your hair (which is why choosing an experienced professional is key), so if you already have existing damage, whether it’s from heat or previous coloring, you’ll want to make sure to note this to your stylist. I had a bit of heat damage in the front of my hair so Taborn was careful to not apply any activator in that area.
On curly hair, damage will often look like a loss of the original curl pattern. “The first thing I think of is to not be too aggressive because you absolutely do not want to over-process curly hair,” Arrojo explains. “Over-processing color on curls effectively ‘relaxes’ the hair into a straighter texture. My first thought is always to stay within a few levels of the natural color to make sure that I maintain the integrity of the curl pattern.”
When it comes to the actual look of the highlights “It’s essential to remember the color can and will appear differently on each texture,” explains Lussiano. For this reason it’s important to find a reference picture of a hair texture that resembles yours — a picture of the highlights modeled on 3A hair may not look the same on 4B curls.
While all curly hair textures are suitable for highlights, some curl patterns can be a bit more complex to apply highlights to. “The winding, ‘S’ and ‘C’ shape patterns of curls can make it trickier to apply even consistent color than on straight hair; and, typically, the curlier the hair, the more challenging it is to follow the pattern for a consistent color,” says Arrojo. S- and C-shaped patterns are usually found in types 3 and 4 hair — and this doesn’t at all mean that these curl types can’t get highlights, it’s just that much more vital that those with these hair textures make sure to work with an experienced stylist who will take the time to apply the highlights in a way that compliments the curl pattern.
The Curly Hair Highlights Process
In her 20 years as a colorist Taborn has gotten the art of applying highlights on all hair textures down to a science, and says the entire process takes about two hours start to finish (not including any styling). This isn’t the type of treatment you can squeeze in during your lunch break if you have curly hair — you’ll definitely want to carve out two to four hours for your appointment.
Taborn began by removing my hair from its high puff and separating it lightly with her hands. While she didn’t create distinct sections by parting she did just gently stretch the hair out for more visibility. We then talked through exactly what look I was going for as far as the color and placement — it’s super helpful to come in with a few photo examples of what you want your finished highlights to look like. Before we got started, Taborn also asked if my hair had been previously colored because it would affect how she’d approach applying the highlights (more on that below).
The stylist then began hand painting the Madison Reed Light Works Activator on to my hair using a balayage technique (a freehand method of painting on highlights that delivers a blended look). Taborn didn’t use foil during this appointment because I didn’t want my highlights that light, but depending on the color of your hair and how light you want your highlights, foil may be used to help lift more color from your strands. “The presence of previous permanent color and the level of darkness of the shade will impact the level of balayage highlights achievable with Light Works,” the Madison Reed site explains.
During this step of the process I learned that applying highlights isn’t actually adding color to your hair but rather removing or lifting color. The Light Works Activator is formulated with Hydrogen Peroxide, which is the main ingredient that does the lifting.
After having the activator painted on my curls, I waited for about 20 minutes for the color to lift. Depending on how light you want your highlights you may wait a little longer, but Taborn recommends 30 minutes max to help avoid damage. For those wanting to go super light, foils can be used to speed up this wait time and aid in lifting pigment.
Next, I was ushered to the wash station of the salon where the stylist thoroughly washed out the activator and applied a toner.
The toner is meant to neutralize the harshness of the color and eliminate brassiness. In the picture above I was a bit concerned at just how bright the highlights looked but the stylist assured me that once she applied the toner, it would tone down the color. Madison Reed offers different toners based on the undertones of the highlights you’re going for — from Warm Honey and Cool Toffee to Cool Vanilla and Warm Caramel; your stylist will be able to determine which toner to use based on the reference image you use and how you communicate wanting your highlights to look.
The toner sat in my hair for about 25 minutes before being washed out. My hair was then shampooed with the Madison Reed Bonding Building Cleansing Treatment which is meant to repair weak or broken bonds in your strands while gently cleansing, followed by the Color Protecting Conditioner which provides UV protection and locks in color to help prevent fading and is also formulated with Keratin to strengthen and repair damaged hair.
After a shampoo and conditioner treatment we moved on to the styling portion of the appointment. At Madison Reed you can work with the stylist to style your newly colored hair however you’d like but a traditional blowout is the most common go-to and was my style of choice.
Maintaining Curly Hair Highlights
Once you walk out of the salon (hopefully loving your new hair) it’s important to take proper care of your look to ensure your highlights stay vibrant and that your strands stay healthy. “Using the shampoos and conditioners your colorist recommends is a MUST if you want to protect your color investment and curls,” says Illeisha Lussiano stylist and founder of popular NYC hair salon The Way.
I left the Madison Reed Salon with the shampoo and conditioner duo used on my hair during the appointment and was instructed to follow my normal wash routine and schedule (every other week) using these products. It’s especially important to be consistent with conditioning your hair. “Condition your hair more or less every day. Conditioner is vital for adding moisture, especially for curly hair,” explains Gina Arrojo, master colorist at ARROJO Soho. A great leave-in conditioner will be the key to maintaining moisture and conditioning regularly.