Jan 28, 2015

How to lighten hair without bleach

Need to lighten your hair, but don't want to use bleach? No problem; there are other ways to lighten hair effectively and with less concern for the condition that your hair will be left in. Discover how to lighten hair without bleach!

Alternatives to bleach

While you may have heard a lot about natural lightening methods like lemon juice or chamomile, none of these are overly effective. Unless your hair is close to the desired colour and you only need to lighten it slightly, you won't have much luck with anything like this.

Dye, on the other hand, is a proven and logical way to lighten hair and can produce similar lightening to bleach when used appropriately. Any permanent dye that uses developer can be used for this purpose.

Lightening hair with dye

Permanent hair dye has two effects on your hair. Primarily, it deposits colour to add a new colour to your hair. It can also lighten your natural pigment though, and this is the effect that can be used to lighten hair without bleach. The reason this works is because of the hydrogen peroxide used as the developer in hair dye.

Developer serves to oxidise the dye compounds in the product and activate it so it can actually colour your hair, but it also has a lightening effect that is dependent on the concentration of developer used. A low volume of developer deposits colour with negligible lift, but a higher volume of developer deposits and lightens.


Developer volume

Developer volume is the most common measure of strength that can tell you how strong the product is. A higher volume means that more oxygen is released when it reacts. What this means is that 10 vol developer will produce 10 times its original volume in oxygen when it decomposes. It is this oxygen that reacts with and lightens your hair. A higher volume means more oxygen, and this means more lightening.

What effect does the volume have on a dye? Depending on the volume used:

  • 10 vol developer

    This volume of developer is mainly used for deposit only colour like darkening or toning as it produces a negligible and usually unnoticeable amount of lift. Use it whenever you want to tone or darken hair and don't need lightening.

  • 20 vol developer

    20 vol developer is a stronger preparation that can be used whenever you need 1 - 2 levels of lift. This volume of developer lightens and deposits.

  • 30 vol developer

    This is an even stronger concentration of developer, and can be used whenever you need 2 - 3 levels of lift. Of course, the higher the developer volume, the more likely it is you'll experience irritation from the dye.

  • 40 vol developer

    40 vol developer is the strongest developer that should be used in modern dye products. Whilst it wasn't unusual for hairdressers to use higher volumes like 50 or 60 in bleach years ago, this should never be tried today. Dye and bleach products have become stronger and more reliable with the use of lower volumes of peroxide and can produce damaging effects on your scalp and hair if mixed with a developer that is too powerful

    When added to permanent dye, 40 vol developer gives at least 3 levels of lift in most cases. However, its main use is in high lift dyes, where it needs to be used to drive the enhanced lightening. In the case of high lift dye, it's not impossible to see a lift of up to 5 levels; but it's more likely you'll get up to 4 levels of lightening. In any case, it's more irritating than lower volumes of developer and shouldn't be used on sensitive scalps.

Preparing dye

In order to take advantage of the lightening effects of developer, your hair shouldn't have been dyed previously. Hair dye only removes natural pigment, and it won't usually lift the artificial colour from a previous dye job. Dyed hair, unfortunately, needs to be lightened with bleach for best results. You can try and force it to lift with dye, but will likely be disappointed if you try.

You also need to use salon dye rather than box dye. Salon dye is separate from developer whilst box dye contains its own pre-chosen developer within the packet. You can choose to mix the dye from the colour tube in box dye with your own developer, but the results aren't as good as what you would achieve with salon dye. Of course, this is a matter of what you are comfortable using.

Preparation of the dye should be based on the colour result you want, and developer volume is chosen after consideration of the amount of lift you want. Using the specifications above, you can see that if you needed 2 levels of lightening, you would need to use at least 20 vol developer for this purpose.

Once you have chosen the appropriate developer, mix it in the correct ratio for your chosen brand. For most brands, this is a 1:1 ratio of dye to developer, but some brands call for a 1:1.5 ratio of dye to developer. This means that for every 1 part dye, you need to add a certain amount of developer to activate it.

After mixing your dye, apply it by brush or your preferred method to sectioned hair and develop for the recommended time for your specific brand. With most brands, you'll find that each developer increment adds about 10 minutes to the development time to allow for the extra lightening required. This means that a 20 vol preparation may take 30 minutes, but a 30 vol preparation may require 40 - 45 minutes.

Check your own brand for specific instruction. If in doubt, leave a comment and ask about your brand for more specific information.

Always use a cool shade

When lightening hair without bleach, you're still susceptible to the same problem of excess warmth that occurs when bleaching. The only difference is that the colour deposited by the dye can effectively tone and neutralise this as it lightens if the right shade is chosen.

To prevent too much warmth being revealed, always use an ash shade for a natural to slightly warm result. If you'd like a warmer result, use a natural shade. If you use the wrong shade or there is too much warmth to be toned by the dye, you can always tone separately after lightening.

High lift dye for blonding

Going blonde and don't want to use bleach? High lift dye is the best way to achieve this.

This kind of dye can lift up to 5 levels in some cases and is the best option other than bleach for lightening hair to blonde. Find out how to use these dyes properly... 

More information:

Do you have a question about how to lighten hair without bleach? Leave a comment for individual advice for all your own hair colour endeavours...


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  1. Does it work on black hair?
    Black natural hair.

    1. Hi,

      Dye can still lighten black hair. Keep in mind that the maximum amount of lift you can expect with permanent dye using 30 vol as the developer is about 3 levels. The lightening is more around 3 - 4 levels with 40 vol developer. High lift can push as much as 5 levels, but there's no guarantee of this.

      Overall, this takes you, at most, to a medium brown, to light brown level, so you won't be able to dye it from black to blonde using dye alone. For this, bleach is necessary.

      If your hair is natural (No dye previously used), and you want about 3 levels of lift from black, dye is a good option. If your hair is dyed black, or you want it to reliably lighten further than 3 levels, pre-lighten to the desired level with bleach first and then dye to tone it.

  2. can i use developer to prelighten bfore dying

    1. Hi Jewel,

      The developer needs to be mixed with bleach or dye to actually work; otherwise it doesn't penetrate the hair properly so very little lightening occurs, and what does occur is often very uneven. Sitting in the sun assists penetration into the hair shaft and this is how sun-in lighteners work, but it's still better to mix it with either bleach or a dye for best results when lightening.

      If it helps, there are some brands that produce a clear 'dye' where the tube of dye contains ammonia and everything else except actual dye pigment so that it can be used like bleach for lightening by itself. You can get up to 3 levels of lift using 30 vol developer with products like this.

      I'd recommend basing it more on the amount of lift you need though. For 3 levels lighter or less, you can do this with dye, on virgin hair by using 30 vol as the developer and an ash shade to counteract warmth. To go lighter than this, lift using cream or oil bleach. For the most lift, up to 7 levels in some cases, use salon powder bleach with 20 vol developer.

  3. Hello! Helpful article thanks! Can you tell me: I usually use a level 5 semi on my ends (with 10% vol) and permanent on my roots (with 20% vol). What would happen if I put a level 6 semi or demi on my ends this time? (& the level 6 permanent on my roots?) Will the 10% be sufficient? My level 5 hair is relatively faded as its due to be done.. Thanks!

    1. Hi Laura,

      If you're using the same developer volume, the lift of the permanent dye will be close to the same of the level 5, but as the level 6 is lighter, ie contains less dye pigment, the amount of colour deposited will be less.

      What this means is that it will lighten just as well, but there is more chance of warmth in the result due to the reduced ability of the dye to tone your hair. If you increase the developer volume, this will lift more natural pigment out and allow the dye to tone properly, but it will lead to a lighter result than otherwise using the 5.

      As for the semi-permanent dye, that is not meant to be mixed with developer because it's not oxidative like permanent or demi-permanent dye. If the dye you've been using is meant to be mixed with developer, it is more likely to actually be a demi-permanent dye.