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How To Highlight Your Hair At Home Without, You Know, Destroying It

Don’t worry, I got an actual colorist to talk you through it.
PHOTO: (LEFT TO RIGHT) Instagram/lizasoberano, Instagram/gomezjuliana

Every six weeks, almost like clockwork, I look at my sad, grown-out roots in the mirror and ask myself the question every hairstylist fears: Should I give myself at-home highlights? But, like, how TF does one highlight their own hair without totally messing it up? Well, I reached out to a professional colorist to figure out everything there is to know. Keep reading to find out how to get the job done right, the best kits to shop now, and the easiest technique for DIY-coloring newbs.


Should I highlight my hair at home?

Okay, I know you don't want to hear this, but ask any expert and they'll give it to you straight: If you have the means, it's always best to skip the DIY and book an appointment with a professional—especially when you're dealing with something as strong (and, uh, as damaging) as bleach. “Since highlighting hair involves bleach, it takes a lot of time and knowledge to do it correctly,” says Meri Kate O’Connor, colorist at Loft 647 in West Hollywood. “Your highlights can turn out spotty and orange if you don’t know what you’re doing, and chances are, you’ll need to get them fixed if you attempt them yourself.”

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Hear that, people? Highlights are genuinely best left to the pros—so if you can wait, pls do. Another thing to keep in mind: If you've already committed to highlighting your hair at home and nothing can stop you, it's not a bad idea to still touch base with your hairstylist before you take the plunge (especially if you're going to end up in their chair for some color-correction down the road).


How can I highlight my hair at home?

Okay, if you're ignoring all professional advice and going forth with at-home highlights anyway, O’Connor recommends you—at the very least!—just stick to your hairline. “That way, you’re connecting the front of your hair to the rest of your color so it won’t look as grown out,” she says. Bonus point? If you f*ck it up—which, again, you might—you aren’t stuck trying to fix your entire head. Translation: Don’t be overly ambitious; just start small.

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Oh, and btw, if your base color is anything darker than medium blonde, O’Connor says you should stay far away from at-home highlights: “At a salon, your colorist customizes your dye and developer to give you the exact color you’re looking for, but at-home highlight kits are kinda like a one-size-fits-all situation.” That means it’s super easy to end up with brassy highlights when you’re attempting it yourself—especially on brunette shades (think: the darker your base color, the more “lifting,” aka lightening, your highlights have to do).


What is the best at-home hair-lightening kit?

If you're highlighting your hair at home for the first time, it's best to grab a kit that comes with all the essentials. No matter which formula you choose, you'll want to kick things off by reading (and then re-reading) the instructions closely. At-home highlighting kits all work a little differently, so follow the directions to a T to make sure you're getting the best results possible.

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And because I know you're thinking it: No, you can't use regular hair dye for highlights. Unless you’re working with virgin, undyed hair (in which case, you should definitely stop reading this and book a future appointment instead!), the only way to highlight your color at home is with bleach. Translation: Hair dye can’t lift hair dye, so an at-home kit with bleach is kinda your only option unless you want to try a natural alternative (more on that in a sec).

Can I get highlights without bleaching my hair?

Yes! Well, kinda. It’s definitely possible to lighten your hair naturally, but you need to have realistic expectations (the first being that nothing will lighten your hair as fast or effectively as bleach). Although you should definitely stay away from DIYs that are spiked with harsh and drying ingredients like baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, or white vinegar, you can experiment with natural ingredients that also help the overall health of your hair, like honey or cinnamon.

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Natural DIYs aside, you’ve also got options when it comes to products—never underestimate the toning abilities of purple shampoo! And if you're trying to enhance your hair's overall shine—not necessarily lighten it—you can't go wrong with an at-home gloss, which can help tone down brass with minimal risk. These are some of my favorites:


Step 1: Gather your supplies

After you’ve secured an at-home highlight kit, hang on a quick sec—you’ll also need to grab a few tools. O’Connor says you’ll need a clean toothbrush or small coloring brush to help you create those small, precise strokes in the layers framing your face.

And even though you miiight be tempted to grab some aluminum foil from your kitchen, don’t—it’s way too risky for at-home highlights, says O’Connor, since it speeds up the lightening process and can actually cause your hair to go too light (leading to tons of breakage down the road…yay). Instead, rip up a few cotton balls or squares to place on top of your highlights. Not only will this help isolate your bleached strands from the rest of your hair, but the cotton will also keep the bleach active without drying out.

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Step 2: Follow the instructions carefully

Again, every at-home highlight kit comes with different instructions, so do yourself (and your hair) a favor by reading them diligently before you get started. Following your instructions to a T is the safest way to get the best end result, so forget that YouTube tutorial and focus on your exact instructions instead, k?

Step 3: Don’t overdo it

Remember: Bleach and hair dye are really harsh on your hair, so if your end results aren’t quite what you were going for, press pause before you give it another try. You should wait at least two weeks until you process your hair again—or better yet, you should see a professional who can tweak your color and get you back on track. In the meantime, the best thing you can do for highlighted hair is hydrate and condition it regularly—these bbs are a great place to start, although any sulfate-free and color-safe formula is a safe option:

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The final word

If you're committed to highlighting your hair at home, make sure you (A) have patience and take your time and (B) follow the instructions extremely carefully. Remember: Highlights require bleach—which can be super-stripping and damaging when used incorrectly—so you want to take caution to avoid a frantic phone call to your colorist. Still on the fence? Try a toning shampoo or at-home gloss—they'll give your color some nice shine and vibrancy without the risk of damage.


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.