Thursday, September 10, 2009

DIY Highlights: to Do or Not to Do?

Hi everyone,

On the last post, my friend Ngoc Ha asked me if I know any highlighting products she could do at home to save money. Her criteria are easy to use, affordable, and does not dry out her hair after fading out. While I have cousins who do their own highlights and got really good results, I simply did not make my highlights work.

Hilary Duff and her highlighted hair
Image courtesy BellaSugar

DIY highlighting is a risky business, even the pro hair colorists do not do their own highlights! Unlike hair coloring, highlighting involves strong chemicals that bleach out your natural hair pigment and then replenish it with a different (lighter) color to create the light/dark contrast in your hair. So if you mess up, it is not going to look good.

For people who have dark hair like me, DIY highlighting is almost a mission impossible (*cue the music, dum dum dum*). When I was in college, I did my own highlights just before Halloween (because I wanted to look hot!) and because of my dark pigments, instead of having bronzy highlights, I got some carrot top strands of hair all over my head! Luckily, it was Halloween so my hair got passed as "funky" and "hip", not "crazy" and "tragic".

The thing is, once your DIY highlights go wrong, it can go very wrong. The cost and time to fix the mistake is astronomically high and I highly discourage anyone to do it. To me, those Halloween highlights took a while to grow out and once they did, my hairdresser cut them all off.

With all the cautionary tales being told, that does not mean you cannot do your highlights at home. As I said earlier, my cousins did their own highlights and theirs always looked great. And if up to this point, you still want to do it, please follow my tips very carefully.

1. Enlist another person to help you with the application:

The reason my cousins' highlights worked is there are two of them: one worked on the other's hair and vice versa. Also, they've done this for each other for such a long time, they know what to expect. Especially if you have long hair, the other person's help is very crucial.

2. Follow the instruction carefully:

And I mean it, to a T! If they say, "Leave it for 10 minutes", you leave it for 10 minutes, no more and especially no less. Also, please read the instruction from the beginning to end before you start.

3. If it scares you, start your first highlighting session with hair color instead of a highlighting kit:

When I started highlighting my hair, I used a box of hair color and proceeded to highlight my hair with it. Of course, the change was subtle because I only used a color that was about 3 shades lighter than my own hair color but it was goof proof. If I did not like the result, I could have simply dyed my hair altogether.

4. Consider using a highlighting cap instead:

One of my friends in college actually did her highlights using the cap and pick that are sold at Sally's. The disadvantage of using the cap is you can't retouch your hair at the same exact spot. However, it is easier to use and the result does look better than without the cap.

5. Do not go overboard:

The common mistake most DIY highlighters make is to cover their heads with highlights they apply by themselves. This not only does not look natural but also affect the timing of the application. Most highlight kits out there work very fast (10 minutes or so) and if you do the whole head, it may take more than 10 minutes. Therefore, your first pieces are lighter than your last ones, resulting in overall blotchiness of your hair.

Instead of doing that, just start with some face-framing pieces and some pieces on the crown. If you use the cap, I'd say you should not apply more than 20 strands of hair.

6. Lemon works, too:

When I was a kid, I used to apply lemon juice on my hair as a conditioner after shampooing. While it worked as a conditioner, lemon juice also lightened my hair a bit. As it is acidic, lemon juice does lift the color of your hair. You can use a cap and apply lemon juice to the pieces of hair around your face and on the crown. To speed up the process, you can sit outside for a while (please wear sunscreen!), then rinse off the lemon. It does work, but takes a lot more time than using the dyes and bleach.

7. To save money, get your hair done at cosmetology school:

As students are the ones who do your hair (with supervision from their teachers, of course!), you pay a lot less than at the hair salon. In my neck of the woods, a lot of people go to Aveda Institute to get highlights and it costs around $35 per highlighting session (long hair is charged more.)

L'Oreal Color Expert (or Couleur Experte if you're in a different part of the world)
Image courtesy

Of all the kits I've used in the past, L'Oreal Color Expert worked great and you need to follow their instruction as strictly as possible.


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  1. OH! thanks so much for doing a separate blog for this topic. Hug!
    Ps: I may wait for Halloween to do my first highlight :D

    Ngoc Ha

  2. Hi Ngoc Ha,

    Oh no, you'll be fine. Just ask somebody to help you whenever you want to do highlights. I guess to start with the box of lighter dye color is safer. If you mess up, you can color your whole head :)

  3. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  4. Hi Susan,

    Thank you for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoy reading my blog and please come again soon!


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