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Bye-Bye, Bleach — 9 Tips For How to Lighten Hair Naturally

When life gives you lemons, some people make lemonade — and others squeeze ‘em onto their hair in a bid for natural highlights.

Teen Vogue

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To switch up your look, lightening your locks can be a fun option. What’s less fun, though, are the horror stories we’ve all heard about bleach.

While bleach may be the simplest, most surefire way to lighten hair, it often comes at a cost. That’s because, while removing your strands’ pigment molecules, bleach also strips away the natural fatty acids found on the hair shaft. This can lead to weakened, brittle hair and, in extreme cases, even hair loss — which is why bleach, when needed, is best applied by an experienced colorist.

Learning how to lighten hair naturally, understandably, is an appealing alternative. But some of the popular DIY options out there feel, well, a little Goop-y. Using lemon juice to lighten hair, for instance — is that actually a thing? We asked hair care experts all about how to naturally lighten hair, and it turns out that lemon juice really is an effective (and cheap) solution — sometimes.

According to Rachel Bodt, a senior colorist at Cutler/Redken salon, natural lightening really only works if you have fair hair with a fine texture to begin with. "When you are working with darker hair, you are dealing with red and orange undertones, and these will be the first colors to be exposed," she says.

So, before attempting to lighten hair at home, consider what results you'll achieve. If you have blonde hair, it will get blonder. If you have light brown hair, you might end up with some dark blonde peeking through, and red heads will potentially transform to strawberry blondes. If you have dark brown or black hair, however, a DIY hair lightener like lemon juice isn’t really going to work. Though some beauty blogs will still try and convince you it’s an option, in general, you’re going to get better (and much more visible) results working with a stylist. (Have dark hair and want a subtle, natural change? Bodt recommends a mineral-removing shampoo like Malibu C Hard Water Wellness Shampoo to give your hair a softer, lighter appearance overall.)

For those of us with light hair, lemon juice — among other DIY, kitchen-cupboard creations — can lighten our hair a few shades, but you’ll still want to exercise some caution when changing your hair color naturally. Not only will something like lemon juice not feel great if it gets into your eyes, but just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t cause damage, as Ghanima Abdullah, a cosmetologist and stylist with The Right Hairstyles, pointed out: “Anything that messes with the keratin structure of your hair is potentially damaging. The damage won't be to the same extent as actually bleaching your hair, but do make sure you use a conditioner after trying these methods.”

Ready to give natural lightening a whirl? Read up on how to (safely) lighten hair without bleach, using items you might already have lying around the house. Some of these aren’t just good for natural, sun-kissed highlights; they’ll leave your stands shinier and softer, too!

1. Mix Up Your Lemon Juice with Conditioner

According to celeb colorist Aura Friedman, lemon juice works — but proceed with caution. "Lemon juice does lighten hair, but it can also be dangerous," Friedman says. "It's so acidic it can burn your hair. The best way to use it is by mixing it with conditioner or even with coconut oil, so you get those important hydrating and reparative benefits.”.

To try it, squeeze the juice of a fresh lemon into a spray bottle. You’ll want to add a little water to help dilute the juice’s acidity, in addition to mixing in conditioner or coconut oil for moisture. Now, spritz it on, either covering your full head of hair or targeting the specific parts you want to lighten. (If natural highlights are what you’re after, go for the latter!) Then, head outside to soak up some sun for about 30 to 45 minutes before you rinse, and don’t forget your sunscreen.

Added bonus: Lemon juice can help reduce oil and dandruff, too!

2. Apply Vitamin C to Your Hair

Vitamin C is an effective way to make your hair lighter, thanks to its citric acid. Bodt regularly tells clients to try vitamin C washes. "That one is easy. You crush up some vitamin C, add it to a spray bottle and spritz it on. It brightens hair and removes mineral build up," she explains. (You can even skip the crushing step if you get vitamin C powder; add the extra powder to your water bottle for some natural immune system support!)

3. Use a Saltwater Solution

If you already color your hair and you've still caught the bleach bug, it is possible to get hair to an even lighter place using the sun. "For all the color-treated people, mix mostly water with a bit of salt and spray your hair at the beach. This will open the hair cuticle slightly and expose it to the sun," Bodt says. But remember this! "No matter what color your hair, the sun will fade it," adds Friedman. "Think about how car paint fades in sunlight. The same thing happens with hair," she adds.

If you want bright, shiny, just-stepped-out-of-the-salon status color, stock up on UV-protecting shampoo and conditioner. And remember — if you're looking to go full-on platinum, please, leave it to the experts.

4. Add Apple Cider Vinegar

Not only will a dose of apple cider vinegar help gently lighten hair, it will also dissolve oil and residue buildup in your hair and on your scalp, promoting growth. Plus, apple cider vinegar helps detangle and defrizz your hair. All around, it's a hair care winner.

"Mix one part apple cider vinegar and six parts water to take off build-up (for example, chlorine)," Bodt explains. "This is a gentle way to lighten strands—but you may have to do it a few times to get results."

Because apple cider vinegar is so much gentler than, say, lemon juice reacting to direct sunshine, you can do this as often as twice a week without risk of drying out or damaging your hair. Simply apply the mixture throughout your hair, leave it on for 15 to 30 minutes, and rinse it out thoroughly in the shower.

5. Combine Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide

On its own, regular hydrogen peroxide from the drugstore won't lighten your hair because it will dry before any chemical reaction can take place. Combining hydrogen peroxide with baking soda, though, creates a paste that can sit on your hair and work magic, lightening it by one to two shades. When trying out this method, you’ll want to exercise some caution, however.

“Despite the popularity of this hair lightening method, both baking soda and hydrogen peroxide are quite harsh chemicals that can damage the cuticle and irritate your scalp if you add too much paste on your hair and hold it for too long,” Monica Davis, a hairstylist and founder of MyStraightener, said.

To try out this method while mitigating the risk of damage, combine one cup of baking soda with no more than three tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide. Mix it up and apply the paste to your hair, letting the mask sit 30 minutes for lighter hair and 45 minutes for darker.

As an extra precaution, you can “protect your hairline with petroleum jelly and apply a moisturizing mask right after dying,” Davis adds.

6. Make a Cinnamon and Honey Mask

This is one sweet-smelling solution for how to lighten hair naturally. When you mix honey and cinnamon together, something magical happens. “Honey combined with cinnamon activates the hydrogen peroxide traces in the honey,” Abdullah said. “This combined with honey's glucose oxidase produces a chemical reaction that causes your hair color to change (to) one or two shades lighter if you have light brown hair.”

Create a mask by combining two tablespoons of honey (raw is best), one tablespoon of cinnamon and one tablespoon of olive oil for extra hydration. Mix it all together and add a bit of conditioner if it's too thick. Then, let the mixture sit for half an hour, giving the cinnamon and honey a chance to mix and the hydrogen peroxide time to activate. Apply the mixture to your hair, secure it in a bun, and top it off with a shower cap. Leave it on for at least four hours. It's even better if you can let it sit overnight (just remember to put a towel over your pillow so you don't stain your pillowcase!).

7. For an Ultra-Gentle Change, Try Chamomile

Chamomile “helps revive hair's luster” while adding natural highlights, Abdullah says. It’s all thanks to quercetin, a flavonoid — or, the thing that gives plants their pigmentation — found in chamomile. Quercetin is known to inhibit tyrosinase, which is an enzyme that helps control hair’s production of melanin, and that makes chamomile an effective DIY hair lightener.

When used with honey, or even on its own, chamomile will subtly lift the overall tone of your hair. So if that’s what you’re looking for, great! And if what you’re interested in is natural highlights, you’ll want to try a DIY solution that you can apply to more targeted parts of your hair instead, like the lemon juice-conditioner combo.

To make your hair lighter using chamomile, all you’ll need to do is brew a few tea bags (Abdullah recommends seven). Let them steep for a while so the tea is extra strong, allowing it to cool in the process. Then, put the tea in a spray bottle, throwing in a teaspoon or two of honey if desired. Spritz it on and let your hair soak for 30 minutes to an hour max before rinsing. (Keeping it under an hour is important if you don’t want to emerge from this experiment with majorly dried-out hair!)

8. Pour One Out (And Over Your Hair)

For, ahem, of-age readers with a six pack in their fridge, beer can make for a dece DIY lightener. “The average beer has a pH of around 4, which is enough to lighten your hair a tiny bit,” Davis said. “At the same time, this beverage can hydrate your hair and reduce frizz quite effectively… The lightening effect isn’t guaranteed, but nothing will for sure go wrong, too.”

Open two or three bottles and let them sit out a few hours — basically, long enough to go flat (carbon dioxide isn’t your friend here). Once they’re decarbonated, head into the shower and shampoo as normal before pouring the beer over your hair, from root to tip. Before rinsing, take a half hour break to go sit in the sun, and use plenty of conditioner after.

If after your shower, a little beer residue sticks to your strands, that’s okay — and is even good for scalp health! Beyond being an easy way to lighten hair at home, most beers are packed with malts and hops that contain nourishing, strength-building proteins. Plus, silica, a chemical compound that adds volume and thickness, and vitamin B, which helps with shine and bounce, are both found in beer.

Don’t have any beer on hand? Vodka is a common alternative, and its clear blue tones are thought to help lift hair’s brassiness, too. Just be sure, for either one, not to do more than one or two rinses monthly, since alcohol can majorly dry you out. (Plus, you don’t want to wind up constantly smelling like Panama City Beach during spring break.)

9. Proceed with Caution When Using Sun-In

For you Sun-In fans, we hate to break it to you, but you might want to think twice. While it might seem like a natural method — hey, it says "sun" right in the name! — it's not actually a safe way to lighten hair. "That kind of product causes a chemical reaction with your hair. If you want to dye it later on, you have to remember that it will still be there and could cause damage later in the game," says Friedman. If you have been using a hair-lightening product before heading to the salon, fess up to your colorist to avoid breakage.

Can’t Avoid Bleach? Take the Proper Precautions

We know, we know; you’re here because you want to know how to bleach hair without bleach. And there are, as demonstrated above, a bunch of DIY, natural options to choose from for a subtly lighter look. Sometimes, though, the color of your hair or the specific style you’re after is going to call for bleach. And that’s okay! Bleaching your hair doesn’t have to be synonymous with damaging it, provided you’re taking certain steps to look after your hair health.

An experienced colorist will help verse you on those steps while applying bleach in the least-harmful way possible. If you’re bleaching your hair at home, though, be sure and do your research beforehand. A lot of that will come down to finding the best pre- and post-bleach products, like moisturizing hair masks, to keep your locks protected and help preserve their new color. (Kendall Dorsey, hairstylist to celebs like Solange and Yara Shahidi, shared with us some of her faves!)

At the end of the day, being mindful of hair hydration is never a bad idea — and that’s true whether you’re lightening your hair with at-home DIY remedies or at the salon!

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This post originally appeared on Teen Vogue and was published January 28, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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