Bleaching My Hair Burned My Scalp — Here's How I Fixed It

Photo: Courtesy of Hairstory.
For those of you who haven't been following my epic hair journey over the past few months, here's a refresher: In May, I decided to bleach my hair after realizing that I'd kept myself from experimenting with my look because I thought it would make me unattractive. After a seven-hour process, I emerged with nearly white strands, poised to take on the summer. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived, and after about three months with light hair, I decided to go back to brunette. I made the change just last week, and have never felt more like myself.

There were a few big reasons I decided to re-embrace my natural coloring. A lot of it had to do with identity and personal preference. But there was one major issue that I haven't touched on before. After the second time I got my roots touched up, I went home and realized that my scalp was really red, raw, and tender. I popped some Advil and fell asleep, only to wake up the next morning with the back of my hair almost completely matted to my scalp and my head scabbed. In short, the bleach had burned the fuck out of my hair, and I had no idea how to deal.

I want to be clear that I went to highly reputable salons in NYC to get my hair dyed. The colorists I worked with are the best in the business, incredible professionals, and used top-of-the-line bleach. None of this is their fault — I just happen to have an insanely sensitive scalp. After all, you're putting bleach on your skin — things don't always go according to plan, it's the nature of the beast. In fact, this is actually a fairly normal phenomenon, according to Francesca Fusco, MD, a Clear dermatologist. "The same thing actually happened to me last year," she says.

In short, the bleach had burned the fuck out of my hair, and I had no idea how to deal.

The key to making sure this doesn't happen is good preparation. The first rule of bleaching your hair? Don't go if you're about to get your period. "When you're premenstrual, you're more vascular everywhere, including your scalp," Dr. Fusco says. I messed this up majorly — I was on the first day of my period when I got my initial bleach job — which wasn't as irritating as the touch-up bleach job, but still left my skin red and slightly scabbed.
It's also important not to shampoo your hair for a few days ahead of time to let the oils build up, which will help protect your head. Dr. Fusco actually says to take it one step further. "About four days before you get bleached, give yourself a coconut hair mask overnight, and make sure you put [the oil] on your scalp," she says. "The next morning, shampoo your hair and use a really thick conditioner from scalp to tip." She suggests Clear Complete Scalp Care Conditioner, since it's super-hydrating.

Dr. Fusco also says to make sure you speak up if you notice your scalp burning during the process. "It's not supposed to be so painful," she says. "You should absolutely tell your colorist if your scalp is really starting to burn." But if you're like me and kept your mouth shut, even while you heard your hair follicles screaming for mercy, you'll return home with a raw, tender scalp. And you shouldn't respond by shrugging and falling asleep. Do not be like Maria, people.

"If you experience swelling and weeping [when your scalp is leaking fluid], make sure you take an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen," Dr. Fusco says. Then, even though your hair is likely blowdried and gorgeous, you need to do a rinse to keep your scalp from scabbing. Dr. Fusco suggests taking a bowl of milk, adding some ice, and then pouring it over your scalp. Let it sit for three minutes, and then repeat for a total of three times. "The coolness of the milk, the fat content of the milk, and the protein of the milk will have a healing effect on the scalp," Dr. Fusco says.

Once your milk mask is done, rinse your hair with cool water, and then apply a super-rich conditioner with zinc pyrithione — which is found in many dandruff conditioners — from root to tip. Pull it back into a ponytail and let it sit — for at least an entire day. Sounds like a little much, right? But it's imperative that you follow these steps to avoid scabbing. "Once the scab forms, it delays healing, and you're more prone to scratch and pick at those scabs," Dr. Fusco says. "If you pick at those scabs, you're more at risk for losing hair." Yeah — that's terrifying.

Naturally, not everyone is going to have the same scalp-burning experience — and not every DIY will work on everyone. Which is why it's okay, even encouraged, to pop by your doctor's office to get it checked out if you're nervous, in pain, or it's not healing. Nervous? Just go.

However, most people's scalp heals in about a week if they follow these steps. You'll likely get a little dandruff, which is normal, but it will only last as long as it takes for your scalp skin cells to turn over. Use some anti-dandruff shampoo and move on. Or, you could just punk out and dye your hair back to brown to avoid this mess in the future, like I did. I'm convinced brunettes have more fun anyway.

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