Every curly-haired woman has a curly-hair horror story. It might involve going to a salon that doesn't know how to properly cut and shape. It might have to do with a stylist's getting a little overzealous with heat and causing your subsequent fear of flatirons. It might even center on someone using a relaxer to "tame" your curls a bit (yes, this happens). We have trust issues, and rightfully so. Our hair is high-maintenance and sensitive at the same time. Anything that threatens our natural curl pattern—which we’ve spent years coddling, moisturizing, and detangling—is met with a lot of well-justified hesitation.
Naturally, when I decided I wanted to get highlights recently, I experienced an unsettling combination of feelings: caution, skepticism, and extreme nervousness. Even with the research I’d done on how to dye curly hair—an essential step before any salon visit—I still had a deep-seated fear that something could go wrong.
Thanks to my extensive research, it turns out I had nothing to worry about. My biggest piece of advice from this experiment: Find a great colorist. That's undoubtedly the most important part of the process. Below, seven more tips on how to dye curly hair that'll ensure you walk away with perfectly colored curls.
Book a consultation—and explore alternatives to bleach.
Before any color appointment, you should always book a consultation. It's helpful to bring in reference photos, then work with your colorist to see whether it's possible to duplicate those results on your hair type. Seventy-two hours ahead of my appointment, I went to London's 3Thirty Salon to meet with stylist and owner Tiff J. During our consultation she asked what I was looking for and gave me more than enough time to ask all of my burning questions. Since I was shooting for a warm caramel shade and had “virgin hair" (meaning it hadn't been colored before), she informed me that we would skip the bleach and opt for a permanent tint instead. If I had wanted a lighter tone, though, bleach would have been necessary.
That's not to say bleach isn't safe; you can use it on curly hair and retain your texture when it’s applied carefully and properly. Curly girls are often told that this step can ruin our texture and the only way to save it is to cut it off. This is and isn't true—many factors go into taking your hair from healthy to fried. For instance, if your hair has a lot of elasticity to it and you’ve been moisturizing, you’re likely a better candidate than someone who uses a lot of heat and skips their deep conditioners. Another factor is your colorist, which is why the consultation is so important. Ideally, they'll talk through some alternative techniques with you and work out a plan to limit damage instead of immediately pulling out the bleach. If bleach is an early suggestion, you might want to book elsewhere.
“[Some colorists] think any dark hair that needs to be lifted more than four shades needs bleach,” says Tiff. “That's where people go wrong.” However, keep in mind that if you already have color in your hair and want to go cooler-toned or lighter, your colorist may need to use bleach to lift it and cleanse the cuticle.
Load up on the Olaplex.
According to Tiff, a big saving grace for women who color their hair—both curly and otherwise—has been the invention of Olaplex. “That's our best friend,” she says. “Colors break down the natural bonds within the hair, so what Olaplex does is rebuild as much as possible. That way you don't feel like your texture changes so much.” She mixes the salon-grade product into the color itself, then shampoos and conditions hair with the rest of the range.
At home you can continue keeping your hair healthy with Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector, a leave-in treatment. Make it a regular part of your routine to ensure your texture stays the same.
Ask for a strand test.
Another step you should ask your colorist to conduct is the strand test, which shows how your hair will react to the color. After we finished our consultation, Tiff placed some of the product she’d be using on the hair behind my ear to test for allergies. If my skin reacted in any way over the next day or two, we would explore other methods. More important, she wanted to check whether my hair porosity or elasticity would change drastically in that time (it didn't). This is an especially important test if you're going to be using bleach.
Since I had no adverse reaction, we were good to go. Leading up to my appointment, I continued doing my typical wash routine. Tiff told me we would use Olaplex throughout the process, so I didn't need to do any additional treatments.
Try highlights instead of allover color.
Tiff sometimes turns away clients if their hair isn't healthy or strong enough to handle the amount of peroxide required. Or she'll recommend highlights because it uses less product: “It gives the illusion of being blond, but you're not getting it on your scalp and it's not coating all your hair."
For my first round in her chair, I took this advice and opted for highlights. My hair grows up and out in an Afro shape, so Tiff applied color all over the head, as opposed to just the top. She gently brushed my hair in order to stretch the curls and ensure that the highlight would cover the entire strand. Then the foil came out and the process began. One hour later she took the foils out, washed and conditioned my hair with Olaplex, and gave me a glimpse at the new, caramel-streaked me. Just as she had promised, the highlights were prominent enough to transform my hair color—even though we hadn't coated every curl.
Split your appointments.
The process of coloring curls is a little different if you're getting allover color, but not by much. Permanent tints follow the same process as highlights, minus the foil. If your makeover requires bleach, Tiff adds more conditioning treatments and trims. But—as she says—it's definitely doable if you add extra maintenance to your routine. If you want platinum blond or pastel curls on a dark base, you'll need to go all the way to the lightest base. "The bleach needs to keep working and working, and what that's doing is slowly killing off your natural curl pattern," says Tiff. "You're reversing your color, but you're reversing your texture as well.” A few years ago she flat out refused requests like this, but Olaplex has allowed her to fulfill more of these asks.
If she does end up going through the process, she'll ask that clients book several appointments instead of just one. This allows her to gradually build up to the desired shade instead of doing too much to the curls at once. “We need to let your hair recover,” she says. She tells clients to do extra treatments between sessions and try to rebuild the natural bonds as much as possible. For clients with short hair, this is easier. "Their hair is more porous and stronger," she explains.
Play with semipermanent shades.
Another less damaging option for curly girls is to opt for a semipermanent shade. The exception is henna, which Tiff doesn't recommend because the natural product can actually be quite drying. Instead, she prefers L'Oréal Professionnel Dia Light and Dia Richesse. “Semipermanent dye lets you liven the hair up a little bit without the risk of damage," she says. "It washes out eventually, but it doesn’t get into the cuticle.” The glossy tone should last around six to eight washes.
Stock up on conditioner.
No matter which route you go, Tiff advises clients to deep-condition regularly. It might be a good idea to avoid heat too, especially if you’re going for a shade as light as platinum blond. “That’s another thing that breaks down the natural bonds," she says. Try adding the Olaplex No.5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner to your shower routine. For extra hydration, the Davines Renaissance Circle Hair Mask easily gets the job done.
Following my appointment, I've been washing and deep-conditioning once a week and have yet to experience any breakage. My post-highlight curls feel the same as before—now they just have a beautiful sun-kissed effect. While I don't know whether I'll go back for more highlights or an allover color transformation in the future, I'll definitely tick off every box on this list now that I know how to dye curly hair. Consider my first brush with color a resounding success.
Taylor Bryant is a writer in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @taylahgram.
Originally Appeared on Glamour