The Lazy Fashionista: DIY highlights

** disclaimer: all of the below is based on personal experience. Do not take as gospel, and when in doubt ALWAYS consult a professional!

Highlights can really brighten your natural hair color. But when in doubt ALWAYS consult a professional!

In addition to being lazy, I am also cheap. Getting your hair professionally colored at a salon can cost upwards of $100-$200, depending on the salon, and your hair. When I had hair half-way down my back, it cost me $200 for highlights (full head, high and lowlights, three colors), and that was four of five years ago, in Atlanta (I cringe at the thought of NYC prices). It’s probably more like $250 now. And loathe as I am to admit it, yes, I color my hair. *hangs head in shame* Particularly in the winter, I find it essential to brighten my blond artificially, as with the sun now hiding, I get no help from nature. Most people have no idea I color my hair, though. That’s because, if you’re smart about it, highlighting/coloring your hair can be your little secret. The key is picking the perfect color, and using it sparingly.

There are two key giveaways of fake color: dry, brittle, poor condition, and color that looks “off” — too many people go for color that clashes with their natural skin tone and/or their natural color (if it’s the highlights that are off). We’d all love to be blonde, but not everyone can pull it off. Same goes for red, brunette, etc., but it’s usually the (fake) blondes committing crimes against hair. And constant dying and subsequent heat treating of hair can leave it in extremely poor condition — another hallmark of a shoddy blond dye job is dull, straw-like strands.

Maybe you want a dramatic change, which is fine, and some of these tips will still apply (see tip six). But if you’re a lazy fashionista, sticking to natural colors is probably easiest — less upkeep (in terms of conditioning and styling) and less need for touch-ups, which can fry your hair. So this is more about natural highlights, less about va-va-voom hair.

Tip One: pick the right color for your skin tone. This isn’t easy, I’ll admit, and personal consultations are usually necessary. My early forays into coloring my hair were done at a professional salon, where I got a lot of good tips on what worked for me. I need warm tones, and any blond shade with “honey” or “warm” in the title is my best bet. Anything with “ash” in there washes me out. Is your skin tone warm or cool? ( You can find tests on most makeup sites, and a lot of hair dye sites, as well. Take heed of your results, and figure out the hair dye lingo of which shades are for warms and which are for cools (and neutrals, mustn’t forget them XD).

My other cheat is one that is universal: I used to be much blonder, and was actually a strawberry blond from birth to about age 4, so using picture references, I highlight approximating those colors. It looks natural, because at one point it was. If you’re mourning the loss of your heretofore blond/red hair (woe is the girl who was blond at 7, and a brunette or very dirty blond by 17!), highlighting back to that color is one way to get it back.

Nice & Easy is a personal favorite, for the variety of colors but also the subtly of the application. It's also affordable and features a line of root touch ups.

Tip Two: don’t do anything too dramatic! If you are a dark brunette, dear God, don’t go for Light Blond. Nothing looks more fake than jumping to something that is nowhere near the realm of your natural color. If you want a big change, go to a professional, and don’t risk doing it yourself. And the key here is LAZY — the closer your highlights are to your natural shade, the longer you can go between touch ups, which will in turn save the condition of your hair. I only highlight 2-3 times a year, if that.

You should pick a shade only 2-3 times lighter than your natural shade. If you’re doing highlights and lowlights, the lowlight color should be 2-3 times lighter (or possibly DARKER than your natural color, if you’re already a blond, for instance) and the highlight can be 4-5 lighter BUT it should be used very sparsely. I don’t recommend it for beginners. I myself have only done it once, and that was to cover up a botched job (ha!). More on that later.

A note on blond hair dye: one of the big oops you see are people who are going for blond, but end up orange. This is the tragedy of Sun In — most people don’t realize that it doesn’t make you blond. If you have ANY red tones in your hair (and a lot of people do, especially brunette), it will lift those and you’ll be a redhead. Personally, I strove to be a redhead for four years, so I never minded, and even now I like the red tinges of blond in my hair. But not everyone wants to be orange. So again, I emphasize the above point — don’t do anything too dramatic! A brunette going blond has a high likelihood of ending up orange, because of how many levels they’re lifting with just box color. If you really want to go blond from a darker color, see a professional.

Tip Three: make sure you have the right tools. There are many methods for highlighting, but I’m sharing my personal favorite, which is the one I found the easiest to use by myself that has the least risk of a botch job. I use a highlighting wand like this one, which I got in a home highlighting kit. The brand it came with ended up being all wrong for me — the color mixture was a dense foam, which I found hard to apply as subtly as I wanted, and I ended up with a giant, too-blond patch of hair framing my face. This is where I experimented with lowlights ๐Ÿ™‚ Some kits use a cap, which I’m sure works as well, but is a bit too labor intensive for me. Others use a wide, flat brush, but I prefer highlights that I can space at my own preferred intervals. I think it looks more natural.

Tip Four:
use normal color dyes, and don’t get “frosting” kits unless you know what you’re doing. Where I went wrong the first time I tried this was getting a frosting kit. As I mentioned, I was meant to apply a dense foam, which theoretically allowed for more control of where the color went — you plopped it down and it stayed where you put it. But I found it left less margin for error, and I messed up ๐Ÿ™‚ I buy just normal color now, which not only affords me more shade choice (most highlighting kits come in a finite range of color), but it’s easier to clean up messes. It’s kind of a bummer to throw out most of the bottle (since it’s meant to be all-over color for mid-length hair), but if you get your preferred shade on sale, it’s fine.

You can buy Nice & Easy's deep conditioner separately, and pictured here is the highlighting wand I prefer

Tip Five: start from the back and do the top of your head/the strands framing your face LAST. I learned my lesson here in my earliest sessions of home hair dying. It’s tempting to start where you want highlights most — right on the top of your head, but these parts actually develop the fastest, if you’ve dyed your hair before. By the time you hit the recommended 25 minute development window (don’t ever be afraid to cut this short!), the darker parts of your hair have barely lifted, whereas the stuff on top is now frighteningly bleach blond and you may or may not have a botched hair color job. I’ve found that the bottom parts of my hair (I do full head highlights) need the full 25 minutes, but the tops need only 10-15 to get a nice, pretty lift.

Full head vs. half head highlights — this is a matter of personal choice, and also how you tend to wear your hair. Essentially, a full head of highlights means you’ve lifted color all over your head — I use a hair band to tie off my hair at the top of my head, leaving the darkest layers that brush the nape of my neck, and work up. When I wear my hair up in a ponytail or bun, you see blond highlights throughout, though the ones on the parts of my hair not normally touched by the sun are not as light as the ones on top (so it looks more natural). A half head means you highlight the hair people really see — the stuff on top — but if one were to pull the hair into a ponytail, you wouldn’t have any highlights on the bottommost layer of your hair. Half head highlights are also probably easiest to do if you’re a beginner, or don’t have a lot of time. The above advice is most valid for full head highlights, because I put color on the darkest parts of my hair and work my way up.

Tip Six: use a deep conditioning treatment every week. Coloring kits now come with a generous portion of deep conditioning treatments, where they used to just have a tiny plastic package. You’re instructed to use this conditioner once you’ve washed the color out, to “lock” the color and shine in. But a lot of people then stop using the conditioner, and find their color and hair condition fading fast thereafter. Generally speaking, everyone should use a deep conditioning treatment once a week or twice a month, depending on your needs, as it keeps hair from drying out (especially in cold, dry climates) and helps protect hair color and shine, both artificial and natural. I’ll actually be doing an entire post on deep conditioning treatments, as they come in many different brands and are useful to more than just those who color their hair. But they are a MUST HAVE for anyone who color or heat treats their hair.

You can use a color shampoo/conditioner such as Sheer Blonde, but I recommend Aveda Personal Blends

Additional shampoo/conditioner option: you may choose to use a “color highlight” shampoo/conditioner set, such as Sheer Blonde, to keep your color bright and healthy. This is completely to your taste — I’ve never been convinced that the drug store brands actually work (“common” brands like Pantene have them now, too). What does work is Aveda Personal Blends, which you would have to get from either an Aveda salon or an Aveda store. For about $30, you can get a shampoo/conditioner set (7 fl ounces each) that combines a unique color blend (featuring actual hair dye) and the aromatic scent of your choice. Since they are putting actual hair color in your shampoo/conditioner, when you wash your hair with them (once or twice a week is recommended, but not every day), you deposit some color back into your hair. It’s a great way to maintain red hair in particular, since that color family fades the fastest. But it’s also a wonderful way to keep blonds bright and pretty. I used a red mix during the four years I was a redhead, and it worked wonders. Now I have a strawberry/honey blond mix that I use when I need a boost.

And that’s it! This all is based on my personal experience over the past several years, and I am a far cry from an expert. I think some of my tips are universal, but at the same time I’m aware that the above is based on my hair color, texture, consultations with professionals and also dexterity — there’s lots of using of multiple mirrors, stretching arms funnily, and trusting myself not to screw up! I highly, highly recommend supplemental reading and for some people, going to a professional really is the best choice. I always keep a contingency plan when I do home dying that I may need to have $200 set aside to go get anything I do “fixed.” Luckily, it hasn’t happened yet, but for some it may!

2 Responses to “The Lazy Fashionista: DIY highlights”
  1. Caitlyn says:

    I used a Natural Instincts blonde to lighten my hair for my Twiggy costume, though I knew it probably wouldn’t do much on my medium brown hair…but it gave me fantastic blonde highlights. I’ll probably do it this summer, too!

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  1. […] and, of course, deep conditioning treatment goes into heavy rotation. I touched on it briefly in my DIY Highlights post, but every woman should have a deep conditioning treatment, also called a hair mask/masque by some […]

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