I’ve always been something of a colour chameleon. From the moment I got my first whiff of peroxide, my hair has been red, blonde, black, and every shade in between. I was born with a mop of wild black hair and I grew up envying my more melanin-diverse classmates and relatives. As a kid, I dreamed of being a red-head. None of my friends had the exact shade of bright copper I coveted so I’m not quite sure where this dream was born, but it lasted until my parents allowed me some thick, 90’s-style copper striped highlights. I spent most of my teen and young-adult life in varying shades of red from copper to ruby to strawberry. In the years since I’ve written this blog alone, I’ve been different shades of blonde, violet, blue, lavender, red, and black. But I’ve been wearing my hair naturally for the better part of six months–needless to say, I’m getting bored!
My problem is, I’ve also been working on growing out a pixie. Keeping my hair colour-free is excellent for its strength and health while it gains some length, but I’ve never been a fan of my natural shade. I’ve also been dreaming (literally!) of going blonde again… so what’s a girl to do? Can you still colour your hair without growth-hindering damage?
When you’re taking your hair to and from drastically different colours, there are some things you need to consider. First, think about what you have in mind. Is it darker than your current shade? When you go darker, you can use gentler formulas like ammonia-free demi-permanents that won’t cause as much trauma to the cuticle, the layer of your hair that keeps it soft and shiny. If you’re going lighter, is your hair previously coloured? Remember, colour won’t lift colour so you’ll have to bleach out your last shade before attempting your new, lighter one. I highly recommend you see a professional to bleach out old colour–there are too many variables to account for at home, such as the level of pigment your hair needs to retain for your new colour, the amount of damage the strand can take, and the pigments used to create your last shade: some contain compounds that cannot be bleached, and could injure you if attempt it.
If you’re working with your natural colour, think about how much lighter you’re aiming to go. Pros work on a level system, calculating the lightness of a shade on a scale of 1 to 10: 1 is the darkest, while 10 is a platinum blonde. It’s generally accepted that you can lift two to three levels with permanent haircolour, so if you’re only looking to up your shade by a little bit or just want to change the tone of your hair, permanent colour will probably do the trick. But in my case, I’m looking at a natural black around a level 2. The sandy blonde I’m coveting is probably a level 8 or 9, which means there are some six levels I need to lighten. This leaves me two choices.
The first choice I have is to bleach my entire head. Bleach is very harsh on hair, even if you’re using a cream or oil bleach formulated for use on the scalp. I’ve bleached from dark shades to platinum in the past, but unless you’re willing to get a “chemical haircut,” I don’t recommend it. It’s less traumatic to the hair to bleach up a few levels at a time, taking the time to condition and treat the hair in between.
The second choice is to highlight, highlight, highlight. If you’re not willing to subject your head to all-out bleaching, it can be easier to select a complimentary base and then add highlights of the desired colour. While you’re still using bleach to create the highlights, less hair is being exposed to the caustic chemicals it takes to see results. It’s also a more natural progression: going from dark to light overnight can be jarring. Regardless of how badly you want it, seeing that newly dyed hair in the mirror the next morning is a shocking and surreal experience. Lightening a few shades and foiling in highlights a little at a time will not only save you that morning-after shock, it can also save you some damage with proper treatment and care in between. I recommend regular use of good quality conditioning products and hair masks to everyone, but it’s particularly important for chemical junkies and ladies growing length.
While I’d love to wake up tomorrow with a perfectly coloured, silky-smoothe blonde mane, but that’s just a dream. If I want to continue growing out my cut, my best bet is to gradually colour up: select a workable base and gradually highlight towards my ultimate goal. Staying within my desired tonal range will keep me from getting discouraged, and keeping my hair in the best shape possible will keep me on track with my length. I’d still like to grow a few inches before putting dye-to-scalp, but at this rate that won’t be long at all!