Dark hair, but always wanted to be a blonde? Learning how to bleach hair can save you a lot of money at the hairdresser, as you will be able to lift your hair color yourself to any blond shade. Bleach can turn the darkest strands into pale white but using bleach on your hair incorrectly will lead to damage and unexpected results. A bit of preparation can go a long way towards keeping your hair healthy and avoiding color disasters, so take your time to learn how bleach works and how can you use it to lift your hair color.

How Does Bleach Work?

Using bleach to lighten your hair means applying a mixture of bleach powder and hydrogen peroxide (to activate the bleach). This mixture creates an oxidizing environment and this reaction is what allows both bleach and permanent hair dyes to work. This is quite an aggressive chemical process, which can cause hair damage (even to the point of hair breaking up) and serious scalp irritation and even chemical burns. So approach bleach carefully and try to make sure your scalp and your hair are in as great condition as possible.

Peroxide mixed with bleach will open the cuticles of the hair and oxidate the pigment present in the hair, lightening your hair. Peroxide is also used to make permanent hair dye work. It’s used usually on 10 volume preparations for non-lift permanent hair dyes, 20 volume for low-lift and 30 for high lift. Hair dyes with peroxide use the oxidizing reaction to convert the dye into a colored pigment that embeds itself under the hair cuticle.

Choosing The Right Peroxide Volume

The concentration of peroxide is what determines the maximum amount of lift you can accomplish with the bleach preparation. However, the potency of the mix also affects the negative effects: scalp burns and irritation and hair damage. It is important to always use the lowest possible peroxide concentration that will do the job. Choose depending on your hair color level and health, and how processed it is, not only the quickest or strongest way to get your desired lift level.

Use this chart to decide how much lift you need

Use this chart to decide how much lift you need

Depending on how strong peroxide (the concentration, measured in volumes) you use the preparation will be more or less strong. For example, bleaching light brown hair to a blonde shade would require very low peroxide strength, such as 10 volumes. Whereas if you have very dark hair and want to get to icy blonde you would need very high strength peroxide (30 volume) and a long exposure time. Or, in order to prevent your hair from burning out, several bleaching sessions over a few weeks.

Also, keep in mind that unlike with hair color, a peroxide and bleach mix doesn’t deactivate itself and stop working after half an hour. In fact, bleach will continue lifting color until it’s washed out, so keeping an eye on your hair as it processes is very important to minimize exposure times and subsequent hair and scalp damage. Most bleach horror stories come from using too strong peroxide and leaving it for too long, so don’t be one of them.

Types of Peroxide Volumes

There are generally 4 degrees of peroxide concentration, and only 3 of them should be used with bleach.

10 Vol peroxide is the lowest available concentration, used on no-lift dyes and when you want to life natural virgin hair just a little. You could achieve hair 1 or 2 levels lighter in the best case, provided your hair has never been dyed with permanent dark dyes. However, if you are in this situation you are probably better off with a single process high-lift hair dye.

20 Vol peroxide is the most standard concentration used for at-home lightening, and can lift hair 2 or 3 tones (so you could accomplish a medium blonde color from a light blonde). It isn’t nearly strong enough to lift dark hair to blonde in one application, but it’s much gentler than higher concentrations so in some cases may be used as part of a multiple steps gradual lightening process. Also best if you have sensitive skin that would get too irritated with stronger peroxide concentrations.

30 Vol peroxide is pretty strong, and most people will feel scalp irritation and are at risk of burns if left for too long on the scalp (which keeps heat more than the ends and so speeds up the process). However, is the only way to get a 3-4 levels lift, so if you are in a hurry to be blonde and don’t want to go through the awkward semi-brassy brunette phase this is your best choice.

Higher concentrations of 40 vol peroxide shouldn’t be used with bleach if it’s going to get anywhere near your skin (scalp or even highlights around your face). You really don’t want to use this at home, even if you manage to buy it at a professional hair products store. Better safe than sorry, your hair and your skin will appreciate that.

Preparing and Applying Bleach

Read This Before you Apply Bleach

The bleach mix starts oxidizing the moment you mix it, and will start working on your hair the moment you apply it, so you must be quick. Otherwise if you are not confident about applying bleach or dye to your hair a side of your hair will become lighter than the other. It’s often worth sectioning the hair in 4 sections, and applying bleach to each of them individually so you can wash off the bleach from one side while the others process. But timing is everything, so make sure you are confident about your application skills.

Read the instructions on the brand of bleach powder you are using, and mix it with the peroxide at your chosen concentration. Always use gloves and plastic tools, no metal bows here. It is better to mix the bleach in small bit, so it doesn’t go old while you are busy applying it to the hair. This is where sectioning comes really useful unless you have a helper or lots and lots of practice.

Also, bleach can and will cause damage to clothes, so arm yourself with an old t-shirt you don’t mind getting stained, and old towels. Vinyl gloves are much more comfortable than the ones that usually come with commercial bleaching sets. Keep a timer nearby. An egg timer is actually better than your smartphone, because you may get accidental stains and it’s a risk better avoided. Some cleaning wipes for the inevitable bleach droplet on the bathroom sink are also handy. It pays to be prepared and have everything you need handy, bleaching hair is a time-critical process and you don’t want to run around your home with bleach in your hair trying to find your timer.

Applying Bleach To Your Hair

Apply bleach quickly, quadrant by quadrant, starting from the back of your head and then working through the remaining hair in small layers, until your hair is fully covered.  The only way to stop bleach from working is rinsing it off, so sectioning makes for a quicker and even application. Learning how to bleach your hair safely feels a lot like perfecting your application method and your timers.

How Long Should I Leave Bleach in My Hair?

Bleach will start working the moment you apply it to your hair, and won’t stop until you wash it off. However, after 1 hour the lightening powder that actually does the lifting will be mostly gone, and won’t lighten further. If you want more lift after 1 hour then you’ll need to give your hair as much TLC as you can for a week. Only then attempt to bleach again. This sort of double processing can be really damaging to hair, so be careful with how far are you willing to go in terms of hair damage.

Once the bleach is in your hair, you need to check it every 5 to 10 minutes. Check more often as you get closer to your desired lift level. During bleaching your hair would go from dark brown, red brown, red, orange red, orange, yellow and finally pale yellow. You will fix the color afterwards with a toner, so look at the intensity of color only.

Washing Off Bleach

Bleach will keep working on your hair unless you wash it off really well. I think this is worth repeating again. So as soon as you have achieved the level of lift you wanted, rinse it off carefully with very cool water. This will also help soothe your scalp. Rinse your hair carefully, and afterwards apply shampoo twice to make sure all of it is gone. Use a quality shampoo for damaged hair. Your hair right now needs all the help it can get, but don’t condition right away.

After bleaching your hair you will most likely have unwanted undertones, from red to brassy or outright orange. The way to fix this is using a toner, and toners work best if used without a conditioner. So even if your hair feels like straw, tone first and condition later.

Once you have rinsed the toner and you are happy with your hair, then condition it using a high quality conditioner. If you have the time, an intensive conditioner for bleached hair will be even better. After bleaching hair is porous and weak; white vinegar added to your last rinse will close the cuticles and improve the health of your hair.

Bleaching your hair is often the only way to achieve a dramatic change in hair color and it can be done at home provided you are careful. If in doubt, err on the careful side and apply lower peroxide volumes and processing times. If you don’t feel confident then invest in a good colorist to do it for you, most people never bleach their hair at home. But if you follow this guide to how to bleach your hair you will avoid becoming a bleached hair horror story, and enjoy the blonde hair you always wanted.