Highlights Without Bleach: The Complete Guide

Most people think that bleach is a must to go from brunette to blonde, but that is not always the case. In fact, you can get highlights without bleach pretty easily. It really depends on your starting hair color and the condition of your hair.

But first of all, why would you want highlights without bleach?

Highlights Without Bleach Are Better For Hair

No matter how careful you are about it, bleach is the nuclear option when it comes to hair color. It will damage hair, and while Olaplex and similar bond builders can help… your hair will end up having that bleached texture. So most hairdressers will avoid bleaching your hair if they can achieve the same results in other ways.

Dying your hair darker than your natural hair color leads to maintenance to keep up with the regrowth. A popular alternative is to get highlights without bleach in, to lift the overall base color and make the roots blend better. This way you can let your hair growth without visible regrowth lines.

Sometimes, however, you will need to bleach your hair. Achieving a platinum blonde from dark hair level 2 without bleach is nearly impossible. There is so much hair lighteners can do. However, highlights without bleach are a good option in many cases, and allow for a more graceful regrowth.

How To Get Highlights Without Bleach

You can actually highlight without bleach by using a high lift hair dye. There are many supermarket ones, and hairdressers have them readily available.

The truth is, most people who dye their hair already have a pretty light base color due to the peroxide on permanent dye. However, high lift hair dye won’t lift permanent dye so you need to remove it first.

Step 1: Remove Permanent Hair Color

The easiest way to remove permanent color is by using a dedicated color remover first. There are many different products that fall within the color remover category, but they all work similarly.

PictureProduct NamePrice

Pravana Artificial Hair Color Extractor combo Set

Pravana Artificial Hair Color Extractor combo Set
$$
Joico Color Intensity Eraser 1.5ozJoico Color Intensity Eraser 1.5oz$
Color Oops Developlus Color Oops Color RemoverColor Oops Developlus Color Oops Color Remover$
Roux Clean Touch Hair Color Stain Remover, 11.8 OunceRoux Clean Touch Hair Color Stain Remover, 11.8 Ounce$
One 'n Only Color Fix with Argan OilOne 'n Only Color Fix with Argan Oil$

When you dye your hair, there are two different chemical reactions happening. One is the lifting of the hair cuticle, often using ammonia though there are many ammonia free hair dye options available. The other is the oxidization of the tiny hair pigment molecules that got under the hair cuticle. Oxidizing those pigment molecules makes them too big to leave the way they came in.

A hair color remover returns those hair dye molecules back to their original, unoxidized size, so they can be washed off. This process stinks of rotten eggs due to the chemicals used, but it doesn’t damage the hair at all. Follow the instructions carefully, as you really need to wash off all the dye. Otherwise, the pigments will oxidize again and become visible and you will be back at square one.

You may need to repeat this process several times if your dyed hair is very dark, or you have used black hair dye.

Step 2: Choosing a High Lift Dye

By this point you may have noticed your hair is actually a very unflattering shade of brassy orange. This is because the peroxide or developer on hair dye actually lifts pigment in your hair. So even after the color remover has removed the dye, your mildy bleached hair is there for all to see.

PictureProduct NamePrice
L'Oreal Paris Superior Preference Color Care System, Hi-Lift Ash BrownL'Oreal Paris Superior Preference Color Care System, Hi-Lift Ash Brown$

Joico Vero K-Pak Color HLA (High Lift Ash Blonde)

Joico Vero K-Pak Color HLA (High Lift Ash Blonde)
$
L'Oréal Paris Excellence Créme Permanent Hair Color, 01 Extra Light Ash BlondeL'Oréal Paris Excellence Créme Permanent Hair Color, 01 Extra Light Ash Blonde$$
L'Oréal Paris Feria Multi-Faceted Shimmering Permanent Hair Color, B61 Downtown BrownL'Oréal Paris Feria Multi-Faceted Shimmering Permanent Hair Color, B61 Downtown Brown$
-Clairol Nice 'n Easy Ultra Lift, 11AA Ash Blonde
Clairol Nice 'n Easy Ultra Lift, 11AA Ash Blonde
$

Don’t panic, you can fix this after you have highlighted your hair. To do that you will need a high lift box dye. High lift hair color can lift your hair up to 5 levels. This means you can go from a medium brown to a medium blonde (one step down from lightest blonde) without bleach. If you have dark blonde hair you can go platinum blonde using a high lift dye.

So take a look at this hair color levels guide, and choose a high lift hair color for your highlights.

Step 3: How To Apply High Lift Hair Color

To get highlights without bleach you will need to combine a high lift hair color with 40 volume developer. You should mix it on a 1:2 ratio, so 1 part of hair color and 2 parts of 40 volume developer. Usually it takes about 45 to 60 minutes to develop, but keep an eye on it. In order to minimize damage to your hair, you want to wash it off as soon as your highlights are the right color.

PictureProduct NamePrice
L'Oreal Oreor Creme 40 Volume Developer, 16 OunceL'Oreal Oreor Creme 40 Volume Developer, 16 Ounce$
Schwarzkopf Professional Blonde Me Premium Developer Oil Formula 33.8 ozSchwarzkopf Professional Blonde Me Premium Developer Oil Formula 33.8 oz$
Marianna - Super Star Creme Developer 40 VolumeMarianna - Super Star Creme Developer 40 Volume$
40 Volume Creme Developer, 16 oz
40 Volume Creme Developer, 16 oz
$
Clairol Pure White 40 Creme Developer Maximum Lift, 16 Ounces
Clairol Pure White 40 Creme Developer Maximum Lift, 16 Ounces
$

When doing highlights without bleach you still need to be careful of the dye not dripping. Whether you want to achieve clear, crisp highlights or more of a balayage effect, it is often a good idea to wrap them in foil. This will also help the color develop quicker.

A popular alternative to blonde highlights is brown hair with red highlights. You can achieve highlights without bleach even on black hair with a high lift red dye designed to work on naturally dark hair. L’Oreal Excellence HiColor comes in red, purple and magenta shades that contrast nicely against naturally dark hair.

PictureProduct NamePrice
L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 6)
L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 6)
$$
L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 3)L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 3)$
L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 ozL'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz$
L'oreal Excellence Hicolor, Red Magenta Highlights, 1.2 OunceL'oreal Excellence Hicolor, Red Magenta Highlights, 1.2 Ounce$
L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 2)L'Oreal Excellence HiColor Red 1.2 oz (Pack of 2)$

Step 4: Base Color And Toner

High lift hair dye tones at the same time as it dyes. This is because it deposits color while it lightens hair. If you used high lift hair color to get highlights without bleach on virgin hair, then your hair may be looking amazing already. But if you have used a color remover to remove permanent hair color your base color will probably be brassy.

You can tone away brassy hair easily using a toner, such as any of the popular Wella ColorCharm range. You can also use a high lift blonde hair dye with 20 volumes developer to tone the brassiness away and give a tiny lift to your base color. For example, if you got no bleach highlights in a level 9, you could use a medium blonde level 7 to tone and add overall lightness.

PictureProduct NamePrice
L'Oréal Paris Feria Multi-Faceted Shimmering Permanent Hair Color, 91Champagne CocktailL'Oréal Paris Feria Multi-Faceted Shimmering Permanent Hair Color, 91Champagne Cocktail$
L'Oréal Paris Excellence Créme Permanent Hair Color, 7BB Dark Beige BlondeL'Oréal Paris Excellence Créme Permanent Hair Color, 7BB Dark Beige Blonde$
Clairol Natural Instincts
Clairol Natural Instincts
$
L'Oreal Excellence Triple Protection Color Creme Haircolor,8BB Medium Beige BlondeL'Oreal Excellence Triple Protection Color Creme Haircolor,8BB Medium Beige Blonde$
L'Oreal Paris Excellence Creme [7BB] Dark Beige Blonde Haircolor, 1 ea (Pack of 3)L'Oreal Paris Excellence Creme [7BB] Dark Beige Blonde Haircolor, 1 ea (Pack of 3)$$

If you are wondering how to fix streaky highlights, this is for you as well. Using a darker blonde high lift color with low volume developer works great to diffuse the roots. It will also lighten the base color just a bit, and so reduce the contrast.

Highlights without bleach are not only possible, but recommended if you have damaged hair. High lift hair color won’t get you from brunette to platinum white blonde, but stunning, natural looking no bleach highlights.

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