Ah, the early 2000s—the era of boy bands, Myspace, mirror selfies, and hair that was bleached in your basement sink with a bottle of bleach and peroxide, in à laand Beyoncé. (Hey, hindsight is 20/20, right?)
Thankfully, most of those questionable times are now behind us, and our adult hair is now—or seriously should be—colored in the safety of a salon, with skilled, non-angsty hands. Still, even though your colorist isn’t dousing your hair with straight bleach like you did in 2003, the damage from lightening it can still be pretty severe, especially if you don’t know what to ask for, how to prep your hair, or how to take care of it afterward.
So to help you out, I chatted with celebrity hairstylist and all-around hair guru Kristin Ess to find out exactly what you need to know before bleaching your hair.
1. Be realistic
No matter what, going platinum blonde will damage your hair to an extent. Sorry. But lightening your hair to white-blonde levels requires the use of either hydrogen peroxide or bleach to create an irreversible chemical reaction in your hair cuticle, says Ess. And though the formulas used in salons are gentler than than what you’d find under your skin, they’re still going to leave your hair somewhat dry and damaged, especially if you’re starting with dark or coarse hair.
“The darker your natural hair color is, the more pigment you’ll need to remove to get to a platinum level, which requires a harsher process,” says Ess. “It’s also harder to remove pigment from coarse strands than fine strands, so know that there’s only so much you can do to prevent some level damage if you have dark, coarse hair.”
2. Step away from Google
That $20 bottle of “non-damaging” and “magical” bleach you found on the internet? Run. Fast. “When it comes to bleaches, you 100 percent get what you pay for, since not all formulas are the same,” says Ess. “You want to use higher-quality, less-damaging bleaches that have nourishing additives, like Brazilian Bond Builder, to help preserve the health of the hair.”
These formulas are going to cost you more, sure, “but if you want to keep your hair strong and healthy, it’s all very, very necessary,” adds Ess, especially if you’re not cool with hardcore breakage, dryness, frizz, and flyaways. Though prices can vary greatly per salon and location, you should expect to pay upwards of $150 for a good bleach job, at the bare minimum. Hey, beauty don’t come cheap.
3. Find a really good colorist
If you’re a dye virgin, Ess strongly recommends splurging for the best colorist you can find—whether that’s via word of mouth or Yelp reviews—rather than trying to find the salon with the cheapest price (since cheaper usually means harsher formulas).
“Find a hair colorist you trust implicitly to give you the best of the best,” says Ess. Or, at the very least, find a colorist with good enough reviews (and pretty enough Instagram photos), that you feel confident in their abilities. “He or she is probably going to be more expensive, but that’s because it costs colorists more to get you the good stuff. Platinum blonde hair is an investment if you want it done correctly.”
4. Build a bond with your hair.
“The darker, coarser, or curlier your natural hair color is, the more conditioning you’re going to need both before and after bleaching it,” says Ess. To help mitigate the damage, she recommends slathering on a deep-conditioning mask, like the Wella Enrich Moisturizing Treatment or her own Kristin Ess Strand Strengthening Moisture Mask (trust me; it’s genuinely a good mask), over your dry hair every night for the week before and after your appointment, in addition to a using a weekly bond-repairing treatment.
“If you’re going platinum blonde, you need to use a product that helps repair and strengthen the bonds in your hair fibers,” she says. Yes, that all sounds like marketing jargon, but these salon-level treatments, like the cult-favorite Olaplex Hair Perfector No. 3, really do help toughen up and protect your hair.
To use it at home, just comb a palmful of the cream through your damp hair, leave it on for as long as possible (overnight with a shower cap is best, but at least 30 minutes, if that’s all you have time for), then shampoo as usual. You’ll notice softer, shinier hair after one use, with significantly less breakage with consistent use.
5. Mark your calendar.
If lightening your hair damages it, you should probably wait as long as possible between touch-ups, right? Wrong. “In order to keep your hair color perfectly even and consistent, you want fairly minimal root grow-out—ideally less than an inch,” says Ess. “If you wait too long between touch-ups, you risk getting a ‘band’ of slightly different shades of blonde around your head, which will require a full-on, all-over bleach job to correct.” Which, as you’d guess, is hella damaging.
“If you’re getting a bleach and tone—a.k.a. going platinum—make an appointment before you leave the salon for a touch-up in four-to-six weeks so you don’t forget,” says Ess.
6. Keep it up
Considering you’ll have already sunk a ton of time and money into your hair by the time you walk out of the salon, I’m guessing you’ll want to keep your color as bright and shiny as possible, right? Enter: purple products—i.e. shampoos and conditioners infused with purple pigments that help counteract brassy tones that naturally develop in blonde hair. Once a week, use them in place of your usual shampoo and conditioner to keep your color rich and clear.
Hey, nobody said platinum was a low-maintenance or cheap hairstyle, but if you want your gloriously blonde hair to look less like a walking Myspace photo from 2003 and more like Blake Lively in a hair commercial, then I suggest following all of the above to a T, without cutting corners. Trust me—your hair will thank you.