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Reader question: “How do you hydrate hair that has been bleached, colored, and recolored? My scalp is dry too!” —@calliugraphic
For the longest time, I thought that having healthy bleached hair was an impossible oxymoron. While I did opt for the occasional coloring session, I stressed that my stylist never touch bleach. Unfortunately, that also meant that the lightest shade I could ever achieve was dark caramel. Eventually, my dreams of going blonde grew too strong, and I caved.
But I did my research, and surprisingly my hair is in pretty good shape today. I attribute this to my expert colorists, of course, who made sure to equip me with plenty of advice. But I also make sure to take care of my strands as if they were insured. The right maintenance can help reverse the negative effects of bleaching—even after back-to-back sessions—but that does mean more time commitment, and potentially product investment on your part.
Here are some tips to help keep bleached hair healthy.
Take a break from hot tools for at least one month.
As much as we rely on heat for a well-styled head of hair, it’s going to be worthwhile in the long run to hold off for at least a month. According to Chase Kusero, colorist and founder of IGK Hair, bleach breaks down the natural fatty acids on the hair shaft, so you need to wear your natural texture to allow your hair time to heal. “Using hot tools on bleached hair will expose already vulnerable strands to even more damage. If you absolutely must blow-dry your hair or use other hot tools for styling, always use a heat protectant, lower your settings as much as you can, and move quickly,” he says.
Use a bond-building hair product whenever you shower.
Your immediate instinct upon feeling straw-like strands may be to pile on the masks, but keep in mind that most hair treatments are chock-full of proteins, silicone, and oils. And while these ingredients are not always bad for the hair, when overused they can be. “They can coat the hair, leaving it dull and heavy,” says celebrity colorist Bianca Hillier. “Eventually, when the coating wears off, the damage reappears.”
Unlike other hair treatments that add moisture and shine to the outer layers of your hair, bond-building treatments work on the molecular level to repair broken disulfide bonds that make up our hair. If you have any bleach-blonde friends, chances are you’ve heard of Olaplex, a patented technology that works on the inside of hair to relink and strengthen broken disulfide bonds, making hair permanently healthier until damage reoccurs. If you don’t want to splurge on the entire routine, I recommend starting off with No.3 Hair Perfector ($28; sephora.com), which is meant to be used as a pre-poo treatment before shampooing.
In the shower, I like to use Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate Shampoo ($30; ulta.com) and Conditioner ($30; ulta.com), a pH-balanced formula featuring citric acid (an AHA that reinforces weakened bonds within your hair). After the shower, a personal fave is K18 Leave-In Molecular Repair Hair Mask ($29; sephora.com), another patented peptide technology that reconnects broken keratin chains in hair.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to use all of these bond-building products at once (pick the ones that fit your lifestyle best), but it’s worth replacing your current lineup if you’re not using a bond-building product already.
Apply a hot oil treatment to your scalp once a week.
Unfortunately, your strands aren’t the only thing that’s hit with the harmful effects of bleach. If you’ve ever felt heat or tingling in your scalp during a coloring session, that’s a sign of bleach exposure. “Bleaching consists of an alkaline agent that opens up the hair cuticle,” says hairstylist Jennifer Korab. “The oxidative agent that penetrates the hair cortex works to dissolves the hair’s natural melanin (your hair’s natural color). As this is done, it can cause a chemical burn to your scalp.”
Although “chemical burn” sounds worse than it is, chances are you will notice a dry, flaky scalp after the session. This can be differentiated from dandruff because the flakes will resemble white specks that fall down like tiny dust particles, while dandruff are chunky and tinted yellow.
The best way to counteract this is with a scalp treatment containing natural oils to help restore lost moisture—even better if the oil is heated. “Applying a hot oil hair treatment to your scalp can help stimulate blood circulation and release flaky, dry skin sitting on top of the scalp, leaving your scalp moisturized and refreshed once it’s washed out,” says Jana Rago, a hairstylist and owner of Boston-based Jana Rago Studios. And it has hair benefits, too— “A proper hot oil hair treatment, including a scalp massage and allotting enough time for the oil to seep into the hair and scalp, can result in shiny, smooth strands once washed and dried.”
Apply a leave-in conditioner to your ends daily.
Just as you would apply sunscreen to your face to avoid UV damage, you want to invest in a conditioner to protect your hair from environmental damage throughout the day. “Your ends are the weakest and most fragile, so it’s important to always protect them with a nourishing moisturizer, serum, or oil after coloring,” says Kusero. I recommend IGK Cash In Instant Repair Serum ($34; ulta.com), a biomimetic bond-building technology that instantly moisturizes and makes hair more resistant to breakage.
Get regular trims at least once every 6 to 12 weeks.
Bleach = dryness, and dryness = split ends. If you wish to maintain a certain length with bleached hair, you’re going to want to schedule regular haircuts. Haircuts don’t promote hair growth per se, but they can help you grow your hair longer because they eliminate split ends.
When you get a split end, it runs up the hair fiber like a rip in your stockings. If you don’t snip it ASAP, the breakage will either snap the strand completely or travel all the way up to your roots. Either way, it will result in needing a shorter cut.
Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky. There is no universal number for how often you should cut your hair (sorry!). But the rule of thumb is every six to 12 weeks. The exact number will vary depending on factors like heat-styling frequency, along with your hair type (fine hair is more prone to breakage).