Highlights: How To Get The Look Without The Damage

I’m ready to dip my toe back into going lighter, but without killing my now-healthy hair.
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Kristin
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I’m ready to dip my toe back into going lighter, but without killing my now-healthy hair.

I’ve always been in mad, mad love with the transformative powers of hair color, particularly highlights. My natural hair color is a rich, walnut-y brown, which I’ve come to love, but I’ve always had heavy flirtations with other colors.

The boxes of hair color that I’ve left in my wake could line some distant shore. It started with Sun-In, like pretty much every other girl who had a television and some crazy fantasy of “going blonde for summer” in the '80s. The orange bottle accompanied me to Virginia Beach, where I sprayed my way to a very vibrant carrot orange. Eventually, it turned auburn, but the frying of my hair would continue well into my twenties, eventually ending with a chemical haircut suggested by the same hairdresser who used to apply my relaxers. 

Feel free to sit on that for a moment. I’ll wait while you ruminate over the “WOW, that’s a bad idea” thoughts.

I was a chestnut blonde like Mariah Carey for about two days, when I woke up one morning to find chunks of hair strewn about my pillow like a sugar-drunk child had broken into my apartment in the middle of the night and attacked my head with craft scissors. I ended up with a dark brown pixie cut and a resolve not to touch my hair with bleach ever again. That was the last time I tried to go lighter.

Until I learned how to fake it.

Because summer is coming, and those “blonde” fantasies are coming again; my inner highlights want to come through. I’m blonde on the inside, people. Must dance, must shine. So, I’m ready to dip my toe back into going lighter, but without killing my now-healthy hair.

A very contemplative before picture.

A very contemplative before picture.

As a general rule, I only use demi-permanent hair color on my hair about twice a year since it’s deposit-only and is the easiest salon option for gentle hair-color change. Since there’s no ammonia or peroxide in those color (Redken Shades EQ is my weapon of choice, by the way) there’s really no way to get highlights the regular way. But a real color wizard, like Rachel Bodt of Cutler Salons, knows how to get the effect without using bleach.

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Rachel and I have bonded over our mutual love of the versatility of demi-permanent hair color, particularly the Shades EQ line. Since permanent color literally penetrates the hair shaft and lifts the hair, it can really trash the cuticle if you pop a box of hair color once every four weeks. 

“We see that in the salon, where women come in with hair that’s so damaged from box color that it can’t really take color anymore because there’s so much ammonia and peroxide built up,” Bodt said in our little pre-color chat. 

The reason we love the magic of demi-permanent so much is that it brings the cuticle of the hair down and coats it in a shimmering layer of even color goodness. 

So, since you can’t use bleach to get highlights with demi-permanent color, how exactly does one get the effect of highlights? The answer is “clear” hair color. 

“People think you always need to use bleach to get a lighter color, but that’s not the case,” Bodt explained. “I actually used a permanent hair color called 'Clear,' which has a tiny bit of ammonia in it, but it’s super gentle and really picks up the warmth. I just used that to open up the hair a bit so it would absorb the lighter Shades EQ. I used Clear with 20 volume to open your hair and remove tone. You can use it on even the most damaged, fried hair to remove tone or to get some life into the hair. I just used it to open the hair a little so the Shades EQ would get all sparkly and pretty.” 

Add that to a base mix of ruby and copper brown for some life and warmth without going red or brassy, and apply heat. Rinse, top it off with a glaze to bring it on home, condition, blow it out. 

Sink selfie!

Sink selfie!

“We just add a glaze that’s one shade lighter than the base to bring all the colors together, which is great if you want it to look really natural.” 

The result? A rich base with subtle highlights that mimic what I wanted that sun spray to do all those years ago.

However, let’s talk about my desire to go lighter all over for a minute, because I still have Blonde Ambition. Since my first step into the light is subtle highlights (they’re saving me from chestnut-blonde-craft-scissor-breakage PTSD) conceivably I could repeat these highlights all over my head, which could result in two-shades-lighter, fake-highlight-festival-of-lighter goodness. Which I still might do. But that’s another story.

The price of getting the process done isn’t insane, either. Shades EQ processes range from about $50-$70 in Redken salons nationwide. That includes a blow-dry at Cutler, and it should at your salon as well (ask ahead of time). The color range with demi-permanent is endless, so if you wanted to do brown with red highlights or red with lighter red or whatever you can think up in the naturally-occurring human hair-color category, get in there and play around. No major damage and eventually, it’ll slide right off with your shampoos. 

Since I only wash my hair once a week, that’s about 28 weeks of hair color right there. Not a bad deal for results that pretty. There are other lines of demi-permanent you can look into, like L’Oreal INOA, which is also a great solution for those of us who want some color action without high levels of lift.

Also, my beloved colorist wanted to do a little PSA about at-home box glazes. 

“My personal experience with them is that sometimes they’re not always demi-permanent, that some of them will lift and deposit color.” She suggests getting a consultation on how to use one from your regular color pro or going the student route. 

“There are tons of hair academy students who would be willing to apply it the right way for, what, $20? Do that,” she says. “Otherwise, you may have to factor in the price of how much it’ll cost to get the results of a botched color job fixed.” True.

Although I may never have a full head of highlights, I feel good about my demi-permanent fake lights. There’s a subtle shimmer of goodness to my hair now that just brings a sparkle to my face, which just makes me feel a bit more effervescent. 

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I’m also happy that the health of my hair isn’t severely challenged. Grays covered, face framing highlights in place, I’m ready to take on the world a shinier, happier, hair-colored gal.