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There's never a time quite like the present to try something totally new with your hair — like highlights, whether they're thick and chunky or soft and subtle. It's definitely not the kind of thing you'd normally do by yourself, but the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent months of self-isolation have proven that we can learn to do tons of stuff with our own hair at home (even cut it). That especially applies to the time being, when some salons are open but trekking out to one might not be safe.
If you're itching to change up your hair color with highlights, though, the products, tools, and techniques you use are more than worth paying mind to, otherwise, you might not end up with the look you were going for. Still, it's totally possible to pull off colorist-approved highlights on your own. But before you go searching for mixing bowls and hair foils, read these tips from three experts.
Your go-to colorist might offer a helping hand.
Changing your hair color can be a lot more intimidating than usual when you're the one wielding the bleach (and when you're the one responsible for the outcome). Seeking out help from a professional, who can give guidance on products and application techniques based on your specific hair type and tastes, can make it way less scary. "If you’re wary of doing it by yourself, have your hair colorist sit in with you on a virtual appointment via FaceTime to guide you through which pieces to pick up and highlight," says New York City colorist Nikki Ferrara. "Most of us wouldn't mind doing that at all."
If you don't already have your colorist's phone number, call up the salon they work at or reach out via Instagram DM.
A bleach kit can help prevent unpredictable results.
Yes, you can purchase separate lightening powders and developers from a beauty supply store and mix them together based on how light you'd like your hair to be — but any kind of measuring and mixing of formulas is better left to the experts. "Working with professional products isn't something that I would recommend for any client to go out and purchase on their own because the results may vary," Ferrara warns. "Hair color kits are great because they take the guesswork out of mixing ratios and they provide you with gloves, bowls, and brushes so there is no need for you to guess which is the right brush for you."
If you want super subtle highlights around the frame of your face, Ferrara recommends the DpHue x Kristin Cavallari Blonding Brush, a highlighting brush that comes packed with a pre-mixed formula you can apply straight to the hair. "The blush-type highlighting brush is easy to hold and maneuver, making it easy to highlight around the face," she says. The "user-friendly" Madison Reed Light Works Balayage Highlighting Kit, on the other hand, comes with all the pre-measured ingredients and tools you need to create more noticeable highlights.
You might be going for bold streaks rather than balayage-style highlights, in which case, we recommend a bleach kit like Manic Panic's Flash Lightening 30 Volume Bleach Kit. Whatever kit you choose, though, practice safety first by doing an allergy test to make sure you're not allergic to the product (each box will have its own instructions on how to do an allergy test). And, of course, always wear gloves and keep the bleach away from your skin and eyes at all times.
Always have two types of brushes at the ready.
Los Angeles-based hairstylist and colorist Kristin Ess explains that it's important to have two brushes: one to bleach and one to blend. Most bleach kits out there will come with a brush — if yours doesn't, purchase a two-inch hair color brush with a pointed tip, which fellow Los Angeles hairstylist Guy Tang recommends for maximum control. "Make sure you have a sharper tip on the brush you are using so you can weave or separate out the hair you are looking to highlight," he says.
In addition to the standard hair coloring brush, you'll need a spooley brush (like that brush you use to put on mascara and brow gel) to help blend in the color as you use the bleach, according to Ess. (You can buy plain spooley brushes in packs on Amazon for just a few bucks, by the way.) You want to make sure that you get a soft line and not a solid line where the bleach stops and another color begins. "There are a lot of ways for a hairstylist to do this, but not anything I was willing to teach the general public because it takes training," Ess says. "The safest way for you to achieve this on your own at home is to use a small, densely bristled brush of some sort. If you don't have a spooley handy, you can alternatively use an old toothbrush that you're never going to use again."
Begin the process with your go-to hairstyle.
Right before the time comes to bust out your highlighting kits and tools, the first important thing Ess says to do is to make sure your hair is styled in your everyday, staple style, whether that's stick-straight or with waves or curls. This ensures that you can "see where the lighter pieces should fall with the way [you] normally wear it," she says. Ess also recommends making sure that the sectioned-off pieces you're going to highlight are no bigger than a shoelace. Start your highlights by using the coloring brush to apply the bleach, then follow up with the spooley to blend it in and create soft lines.
Work from the bottom-up and from the front-backward.
Another key to DIY highlights is knowing when to stop applying the dye. As Ferrara points out, it's hard for people to see and reach a lot of their own hair, especially the sections in the back. That's why she always recommends keeping at-home highlights focused around the face. "What I tell people is to stick with the hairline area to brighten up the face," she advises. "You can get a little creative and pop some highlights around a few pieces in the ends to create an ombré effect."
Meanwhile, Ess stresses the importance of applying the dye up to the middle of the hair shaft and no higher than that, or else you'll run into major safety problems. "Anything higher than that could end up on your skin, or on other hair you don't want to get bleach on, like your brows," Ess explains. "I feel like almost anyone can do a controlled section, but I truly feel that it takes a professional colorist to go above that."
Just be sure when you're dyeing those sections of hair that you saturate them with enough product so they lighten as evenly as possible. "You have to really work that product into the hair," Tang says. When applying bleach to hair, use that coloring brush to push the formula into the hair rather than just slathering it on top of the hair — you can also use your gloved hands to rub the product in a little once you've applied the dye everywhere you want it. To ensure that you don't overdo it on dye, Tang says it's best to work in very small sections and to work the dye from the bottom of the hair upward.
If your hair is on the shorter side, Ess warns that this process will be far risker. "If your hair is shorter than a lob, you should go in to see a professional," she says. "Once you start getting up toward the root you can really mess up by doing it yourself."
Keep one eye on the clock while your highlights develop.
Any bleaching kit you buy is going to come with its own in-depth instructions, which you should absolutely read to figure out how long you should let the product sit in your hair. "I would set a timer for as long as the directions say to set it for and always have a realistic expectation of the outcome," Ferrara says, bringing up something else that's really important. Keep in mind that even if you do the job perfectly, the highlights you get at home aren't going to look the same as the high-contrast balayage pictures you've saved on Pinterest, simply due to the difference in products and skill level.
Stock up on toner, especially if you have dark hair
Failing to tone the hair once it's been highlighted is a pretty common DIY highlighting mistake, according to Tang. It's also the reason a lot of people find their at-home highlights to be a little lackluster. "Everyone’s hair naturally turns a warm color [when lightened]," he explains. "People with darker levels will pull more of a red-orange highlight, and medium hair will pull yellow highlights." Controlling that level of warmth with toner, he says, will prevent your hair from looking "raw."
You can purchase blue or purple toning conditioners to treat the hair once you've shampooed the dye our of your hair. Missouri-based colorist Kristina Cheeseman previously told Allure that she swears by the Matrix Total Results line, which includes blue and violet shampoos and conditioners. Similarly, English colorist Leanne Chadwick loves Fanola's No Yellow Yellow Shampoo & Mask.
Start small and stay simple.
The great thing about highlights is that you can always add more after the fact if you want to. But undoing any hair-dye mistakes you make along the way will be a lot more difficult without access to a colorist. For that reason, Ferrara urges you to keep highlights minimal — for now. "We know that in this time, if it is hard for you to come into the salon, that you may have to resort to doing highlights on your own," she says. "So I can’t stress enough using the less-is-more approach until you feel comfortable to come back into the salon and see your favorite colorist."
But at the end of the day, you should be OK as long as you take this colorist advice and use common sense. "I think the most important thing is to use good judgment," Ess says. "Don't do anything that seems confusing or difficult. Bleach is no joke, and you don't want to end up spending hundreds of dollars for a professional to fix it." Especially if this is your first go at DIY highlights, use the philosophy "keep it simple, stupid."
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Originally Appeared on Allure