People ask me this frequently, so here, this is the very thorough answer to that question. Also, and most importantly, this is only how I do things for my own hair. I am not an expert, nor do I believe that this system is universal. Use caution and common sense for your own hair, especially if you’re dealing with bleach.
That said: how the fuck DO I get my hair to be so pink, right? There are a few different aspects to this:
1) Expectations vs reality
Hair color fades, the end. If you put on a long flowing purple wig one day and thought to yourself that you just have to have hair exactly like that, that’s going to be a very difficult dream to achieve, and you will possibly never be happy with how your hair looks. For a variety of reasons, I keep my hair in a pretty short haircut, but one of those reasons is most definitely that I don’t want my hair color to look dramatically different at the roots than at the ends. Even so, different strands of hair pick up color differently, and it’s been my experience that the idea of “uniform” color is not very practical.
Another thing to consider is how old your hair is. Returning back to the hairdo, since I have very short hair, I got a much more even lift when I did the full head o’ bleach. (“Lifting” is when you lighten your hair’s natural color.) In case you don’t know how hair works, I always compare it to scales on a fish or snake. That’s the cuticle of your hair. When it’s healthy, all the scales are flat against each other, which makes your hair shiny and more difficult to break. (When you apply tension to your hair, sometimes it breaks…yes, even when you brush it.) This gets more complicated for curly hair, which is not a long tube like straight hair but is instead flat, but I don’t have curly hair and thus I’m going to shut up about something I don’t really know. Bleaching aka lifting your hair works by prying all of those scales up and pulling all the color out of the hair follicle itself. It’s really fucking rough on your hair, (literally). But anyway, my point is, I’ve been told by stylists that part of why I don’t have to worry much about bleaching my hair is because I’m always bleaching new growth aka my roots, which are generally hardier and healthier than the ends of longer hair. So if you’re reading this and thinking about bleaching your head in one way or another and you’ve got long hair, please consider deep conditioning the hell out of it first.
2) The actual process
So the way this works is I wait until I’ve got about a half inch of new growth, or until I just can’t stand it anymore, whichever comes second:
Then I assemble my tools, which I buy at Sally Beauty Supply:
The way this works is there’s bleach powder, and then developer cream. I do a one-to-one ratio, and for my massive amount of hair, it takes three scoops of each product to cover my roots (although that’s pushing it, and it’s probably more like 3.5 scoops each if I want to make sure I don’t run out). The “volume” of the developer determines how light your hair will get (the higher the number, the higher the lift). When I started doing this, I was buying pre-measured bleach kits (you can get them at Newbury Comics or CVS). That gets expensive fast, though, so I started buying in bulk from Sally’s. I went with 30 volume to be cautious, and I bought bleach powder that’s specifically safe for on-scalp application. When these run out, I’m switching to 40 volume developer and the general bleach powder (which says it’s for on-hair but not on-scalp)…when that time comes, my hair may or may not fall off, and/or my scalp will bleed and run away or something. Unclear. Whatever, I’ll blog about it if it happens. (ETA: I have since switched to 40 volume, but keep using the safe-for-on-scalp bleach. Multiple pros have told me to never use the on-hair bleach for scalp applications and I believe them.)
Anyway, so you mix all that up:
Everything in this photo is necessary. (A) Black mixing cup – bought it at Sally’s, it’s got a handle and a rubberized bottom, so it’s easy to hold and it doesn’t slide around, both important traits in a container holding bleach. (B) Fancy schmancy bleach applicator – Fast, efficient bleach distribution system. (C) Towel – you are going to get bleach on things in your enthusiasm to blond yourself, this wipes it off right away. (D) Comb – for parting your hair evenly, duh. (E) Spray bottle full of water – bleach stops working when it dries, and believe me, it will start to dry pretty fast. Spray your head as you go to keep everything moist and prevent little flakes/dots of bleach powder from falling on everything (including your eyelashes, where things get dicey). (F) Case of Long Trail beer – okay, not actually necessary, and I really don’t recommend drinking anything while handling bleach in any form. Sensible Diva Realness.
So! You get the bleach on your head! I prefer to use the “my mother is living with us right now and she’s been doing her own hair for like decades and thus she’s really good at this shit and will do it for free” system. Your mileage may vary on that one, but this is definitely the time when you may find yourself thinking, “okay so maybe paying X hundred dollars to a stylist in a salon is worth it.” If you and/or the person applying bleach to your head are new to this stuff, maybe start out with semi-permanent color and get some practice under your belt before you jump into the “burns your skin off if you leave it on too long” end of the hair coloring pool? Because this part does take skill, and skills can be learned! But it does mean a learning curve, and it hurts when you have scabs on your scalp, trust me. Getting the bleach applied quickly and yet not missing any spots is something that my mom and I have just recently managed to achieve every time, and my hair’s been pink for a while. Don’t sweat it too much, you’ll figure it out, It’s Just Hair, etc.
Free Tip From My Stylist: the hair on the back of your head is the most stubborn, apparently. So we start at the crown of my head (think of it as the back top point) and work down to the nape of my neck, getting the bleach on the back section. Then each side section, and then the top last. This is because the heat from your head (which radiates up) helps the bleach develop faster. Since the top of your head apparently produces the most heat, it’ll lift the fastest, and thus needs the least developing time. In fancy salons, they’ll often put 30 volume bleach on the back and sides and then mix up some 40 volume for the top of the head, so that way the top lifts super fast and the back of the head doesn’t get exposed to bleach for too long. I am not at a fancy salon though, so sometimes I just burn the back of my head a little bit. Yes, part of the answer to “how to get pink hair” is “headscabs.” SO GLAMOROUS.
Anyway, you can see how fast my hair lifts here – the top has just had bleach applied to it, and the side is already a light yellow:
If you’ll recall, I mentioned that bleach stops bleaching when it dries. However, the bleach has to sit on your head for A While in order to lift as much as it’ll lift (which is itself determined by the volume of developer you use). The way to solve this? Saran Wrap your head:
Keyword: LIGHTLY. Bleach needs oxygen to work, so no pressing down, smooshing together, or tightly coiling. You want all of your hair follicles to be covered in bleach and then exposed to air. The wrap is just to keep moisture in so nothing dries out – it can do that equally well when lightly draped over everything as pressed super close to your head, so no need to pull it tight.
This is now the part where your stylist would warn you about “tingling” but what they really mean is itching and burning. That’s because you’ve applied bleach to your scalp, you idiot. It feels similar to putting hydrogen peroxide on a wound, which isn’t all that surprising since hydrogen peroxide is a bleach. Again: if you leave the bleach concoction on your scalp for long enough, it will dissolve your skin. It’s probably going to do some of that no matter what, which is why spoiler alert your scalp will feel tender for a little while once all of this is over. You burned off some skin cells in exchange for hair follicles devoid of color. If this exchange sounds heinous to you and your precious scalp, then congratulations, you now understand the benefit of hair bleaching and coloring monitored by a professional! It’s a difficult process that requires a lot of patience, knowledge, and skill. It also generally costs over $100 where I live, which is why I do this instead.
I generally leave bleach on my head for 30 minutes or so, although it’s at the point where I can visually determine if it’s done. This is what my hair looks like when it’s done lifting:
Note that this isn’t pure white. Hence my desire to jump up to 40 volume bleach – the more devoid of color your hair follicle is when you put color on it, the more true the color ends up. I also dug around and wiped off some of the bleach itself (which IS pure white) in order to take this picture.
Once my head is done cooking, I hop in the shower and shampoo out the bleach. I try to get the water as hot as my scalp can stand, to make sure both that all the bleach gets out, and that my hair cuticle stays a blown open as possible. (Hot water opens your hair cuticle, cold water closes it…the more open the cuticle is, the more hair color I can shove into the hair follicle.) This is the part where I’m always debating whether to just leave my hair this way:
Yet again, please notice that while my hair is really pale, it’s not white/completely stripped of color, especially at the roots. That will impact the ability of the color to penetrate and stay true to the bottle. Also, while it’s great that my roots are healthy and all, it also means they don’t take bleaching/coloring as effectively; it’s usually only when I redo my roots a few months later that the previous roots finally lift all the way and soak up the color for good.
Now it’s time for color:
Again, totally necessary tools: (A) Hair color – the only brand to use is Special Effects, accept no substitutes. I use Cupcake Pink, which is one of several colors they make that glow in black light. (ETA: I’ve since switched to Pravana Vivids in Pink. It doesn’t glow in black light, but it fades even less than Special Effects does. Also, you can buy it on the internet for wicked cheap.) (B) Rubber gloves – oh god I cannot even imagine doing this without covering my hands. The great thing about Special Effects is it’s a semi-permanent dye that’s got some woo woo vegetable organic shit in it…the upshot is that my hair is actually somewhat repaired from all the bleaching by applying the color to it. This time around I just mushed the color in, but in general I recommend actually going back and applying the color the way you applied the bleach, using a bowl and brush. It guarantees coverage, which is important for me; I think I look somewhat tragic when I have little blond spots that got missed.
Once that’s done, I leave the color in for as long as possible. This go-round I left it in for 3 hours, but my record is something like 6.5 hours. So no, this is not something I do before going out for an evening, it’s pretty much an all-day event that happens once every two months or so. I highly recommend covering your hair, if only to avoid leaving pink streaks on things as you try to function and then forget your head is wet and covered in dye:
Once I’m done soaking my head in pink dye, I rinse it out in cold water. That does not mean lukewarm. That does not mean, “kind of uncomfortable for a shower.” Ice cold. (If you can’t tolerate that on your whole body, do it in the kitchen sink with the spray hose thingy.) When my hair is freshly pink, that is the point when hot water becomes the enemy, and every exposure to it just pulls dye out of my hair…and it looks so badass when it’s bright and fresh, a little cold water is worth it:
After rinsing with cold water, I coat my head in heavy duty conditioner and/or hair oil, to try and replenish all of the moisture I just stripped, and to close my hair cuticles as much as possible to lock in the color.
Some people have suggested to me in the past to add hair color to my shampoo as a way to keep the color bright. That sort of works. I used to only wash my hair once a week and then re-do just the color application part of the process on the months when I wasn’t doing the full bleach-and-dye. That works, although by week 4 (aka shampoo #4) my hair was pretty faded, which meant that 2 out of every 4 weeks had me walking around with pale/faded pink hair. Not What I’m Going For.
This is how I keep my hair bright pink: I only expose it to cold water, and I don’t shampoo it. The end. The first part probably makes more sense than the second, although they both work hand in hand. As I said above, hot water opens my hair follicles. My hair follicles are full of hot pink awesomeness. Opening the follicles lets some of that out, which fades my hair, which is Not What I’m Going For. Likewise, shampoo is soap is designed to remove stuff and the only stuff to remove on my head is either hair dye or oil produced from my scalp. I used to have oily hair, but you know what fixes that really fucking fast? Putting bleach on your scalp. It’s not to say my scalp doesn’t produce as much oil as it used to (I have no idea if it does or not), but that my hair is always in a condition to Really Not Mind Some Extra Oil Right Now. Again, having short hair, it’s really easy to brush my hair and distribute oil as far down the hair shaft as I can…and even still, I put conditioner on the ends every week or two, because they still get dry and sad even with free oil from my head.
To provide something like proof, these shots were all taken over Memorial Day weekend (when I actually did my roots), and this is a photo of me a week later, at the American Craft Beer Fest:
It stays very, very bright, and reaffirms my decision to stop using shampoo on it pretty much daily, if not hourly.
So there you go, now you know how the magic happens!
PS – One thing that deserves a mention, but I’m not sure how to bring it up: I do have to sleep with a towel covering my pillow, lest I turn my turquoise pillow case hot pink. A bit of hair dye does rub off every night, although not enough to degrade the appearance of the color on my head. DEFINITELY enough to stain my pillow case though, so beware.
ETA: Ha, so yes, switching hair dye brands has rendered the last bits of this post obsolete. Pravana fades slowly enough that I can wash my hair a couple times a week without things getting desperately faded. Also, the quality of the color fade is very different with Pravana — my hair goes from a vivid orchid-y pink down to a bright cotton candy-ish shade, which I really enjoy for some reason. As my hair’s gotten longer, wrangling it without shampooing has become super difficult, so it’s nice to be able to wash it thoroughly once or twice a week just to get the hair product and pollution out. Also, Pravana doesn’t stain my towels or pillow cases…it’s basically magic.