The classic lemon juice trick will work—as long as you use it sparingly.

Mackenzie Dunn
Jan 14, 2021 @ 1:30 pm
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how to lighten hair naturally
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Before the days of balayage, root melts, and money pieces that we now pay top dollar for at the salon, there were DIY hair-lightening methods. Usually concocted out of ingredients commonly found in the kitchen, these at-home methods are designed to open up the hair cuticle and allow for a subtle bleaching or lightening effect.

Remember the days of spritzing your hair with lemon juice before heading to the beach? That's just one example. But what other things really work when it comes to lightening your hair naturally? Is it true that simply sitting out in the sun will make you into a sun-kissed blonde? We asked professional colorists for their at-home hair-lightening recommendations; if you're looking for ways to save a little bit of money and brighten your hair up by yourself, read on for what they had to say.

Can all hair be lightened naturally?

Whether or not your hair can be lightened naturally (without bleach) depends on what your natural hair color is. Keep this in mind when thinking about what you want your desired result to be; if your hair is dark brown, DIY methods won't be able to lift the pigment into a bright, beachy blonde. In short: Have realistic expectations when it comes to using these methods.

According to celebrity colorist and Clairol color rep Jeremy Tardo, the subtle lightening of at-home methods will reveal whatever your hair's natural underlying pigments are. "If you have light hair naturally, you can expect golden hues," he says. "If your hair is naturally dark, you will notice a more reddish/copper-toned result." There is no way to naturally go from black hair to blonde hair, Tardo tells us.  

Plus, it should be noted that the amount of lightening you can achieve with only natural ingredients is limited, as Tardo explains that "natural sources of hair lightening are milder and gentler than most chemical hair bleaching."

Tardo tells us that any home lightener can be made stronger with the addition of hydrogen peroxide—which is used in most chemical hair dyes as a lightening agent—but says you should be careful with this, as it can be damaging if left on your hair for too long.  

Ways to naturally lighten hair at home:

1. Baking soda

If you got a bad dye job or previously darkened your hair and now want to brighten it up, baking soda might be a viable option to try. "Baking soda is an alkali," explains Tardo. "When added to water, an alkali like baking soda can help to remove stains. When used in hair, it will not completely remove most artificial hair color, but it can act as an astringent cleanser that does take out surface levels of staining from semi-permanent hair dyes." However, this typically will not have much lightening effect when used on uncolored hair. 

To try:

  1. Mix a small amount of water and baking soda to create a paste.
  2. Emulsify paste and spread it throughout the hair (or use it on certain sections for a highlighted look).
  3. Leave in for 20 minutes.
  4. Shampoo and condition hair as normal.

2. Lemon juice

You may have been onto something in your middle school days of spraying on lemon juice and laying in the sun. Tardo tells us that "the acid in lemon juice causes a gradual deterioration to the hair cuticle, which can slowly strip some of the hair's natural melanin, resulting in a lightening of the hair color." However, it can also be drying, so make sure to deep-condition your hair in between treatments, and try to use this technique sparingly.

To try:

  1. Dampen and towel-dry hair.
  2. In a spray bottle, add one part lemon juice to two parts water.
  3. Spray mixture throughout the hair and leave in for a minimum of one hour.
  4. To enhance the effect, get some sun exposure.
  5. Finish by shampooing the mixture out and following up with a hydrating conditioner or masque, as this process can be very drying for the hair.
how to lighten hair naturally with lemon
Credit: Getty Images

3. Vitamin C

Vitamin C isn't just brightening for your face; it can act as a lightening agent in your hair, too. It's become a more recent trend for lightening unwanted hair dyes in hair: "As an ascorbic acid (the same acid found in lemon juice), vitamin C will remove some artificial hair color from the cuticle layer of your hair but will not take all dye out of hair," explains Tardo, who says that semi-permanent hair colors will be the easiest to lighten with this DIY method.

Ghanima Abdullah, a cosmetologist and hair expert at The Right Hairstyles, seconds this suggestion. She says that vitamin C powder can act as a great lightening agent, but in order to see results on your natural hair color, you may have to use it five or six times.

To try:

  1. Combine equal parts vitamin C powder and clarifying shampoo in a mixing bowl.
  2. Massage the mixture through all of your hair.
  3. Cover hair with a plastic cap and leave it on for one hour.
  4. Rinse well and follow up with a deep conditioner to rehydrate the hair.

4. Honey

"Honey contains glucose oxidase, which naturally produces small amounts of hydrogen peroxide," explains Tardo. Since hydrogen peroxide is a lightening ingredient found in most chemical hair colors, this natural method provides a similar but subtler effect. Plus, honey provides conditioning to the hair, so this method isn't drying. Sometimes you'll see honey added into hair conditioners as a treatment for smoothness and shine, so your hair will benefit from this easy masque.

To try:

  1. Dampen and towel-dry hair.
  2. Mix one part honey to four parts water in a small bowl.
  3. Apply all over hair and cover with a plastic cap.
  4. Leave on for a minimum of one hour.
  5. Rinse, shampoo, and condition as normal.

5. Saltwater spray

If you've ever spent a day at the beach and swum in the ocean, you may have noticed some natural highlights appear at the end of the day. "That's because salt water helps lift the outer layer of the hair so that the sun can bleach it from within," says Abdullah. However, depending on your natural hair color, she says that it can take quite a few trips to the beach to get a fully sun-kissed look, so don't be discouraged if your hair isn't super bright after just one treatment.

To try:

  1. Dissolve one tablespoon of salt into 1/2 cup of water.
  2. Place the mixture in a spray bottle and spritz your whole head until it is saturated.
  3. Leave on for 20 minutes to one hour while in the sun.
  4. Rinse with fresh water and follow with a hydrating shampoo and conditioner.

6. Cinnamon

According to Abdullah, honey and cinnamon might be one of the gentlest combos for lightening your hair at home. "The two ingredients create a chemical reaction that activates the trace amounts of hydrogen peroxide in honey and can lighten your hair a full shade if you leave the mask on for about an hour," she says.

To try:

  1. Mix two tablespoons of honey and one tablespoon of cinnamon with your favorite conditioner to create a mask. 
  2. Spread it evenly on hair. 
  3. Cover with a plastic cap and leave on for one hour. 
  4. Rinse thoroughly and follow with shampoo and conditioner.

7. Lightening shampoo

If your hair is already highlighted and you just want to boost the brightness, try a subtle lightening shampoo. This one from John Frieda is formulated with citrus and chamomile for subtle, gradual lightening.

John Frieda Go Blonder Shampoo
$11.99
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Ulta

If you are hoping to achieve more noticeable lightness at home, hair color lines like Clairol's Nice'N Easy Hair, Garnier Nutrisse's Nourish Color Creme, and L'Oréal Paris's Superior Preference Dye are gentle and conditioning while offering you a broad range of lightening possibilities, though most do contain bleach.