I Burned Off My Hair With Bleach, So You Don’t Have To

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
I knew my hair breakage was bad when I showed it to a stylist and she cried. “I’m sorry. I just had a baby,” she said with misty eyes. “Your hair is just so beautiful.” Meaning: My hair was beautiful.

I’ve been fighting my DNA on my quest to be as flaxen as a Swedish toddler for about 13 years. It started when my mom suggested I get a few foil highlights in my dark-blonde hair for my high school senior portrait and has gotten blonder and blonder ever since. “People pay good money to get hair like yours,” my dad always says — apparently forgetting that I pay good money to get hair like mine.

Then, a few months ago, I moved from L.A. to Portland, Oregon — leaving behind my long-time pal and ace hairstylist, Patricia, plus a decade’s worth of other friendships and a successful editing career to take some big risks: work in a new industry, live in a new city, and wear more plaid.

Utterly friendless, vulnerable, and lacking a hairstylist recommendation, I Yelped my way to a young, hip, funny colorist whom I bonded with instantly — before realizing she had given me the touch-up from hell...

When I stood up from her chair, the first few inches of my roots were a shocking, Draco Malfoy platinum, while my ends had more brass than a Michael Bublé album. She offered a complimentary color-correction, and I accepted, hoping to patch over the awkwardness and maintain the relationship. Her solution? Bleaching the holy fucking fuck out of my ends to match.

At a time when so many other aspects of my life felt out of my control, my long, bouncy hair — which fell to about the middle of my back — literally fell apart. Whenever I brushed my tangled mass of freshly highlighted hair, quarter-inch-long wisps the color and texture of dandelion fuzz floated into the air and landed on my bathroom counter. After two weeks of this, the strands at the nape of my neck fell in a jagged line above my shoulders; the rest lingered, dry, brittle, and devastated.

When the hair starts to tangle easily or when you notice your hair is simply not growing due to breakage, this is when you need to head to your local salon for a haircut that takes all of the dead, split ends away.

Tracey Cunningham
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I asked Redken celebrity colorist Tracey Cunningham to explain exactly why my hair had given up this time. “[Hair] only breaks if you over-process,” Cunningham said. “Once the underlying pigments for white hair start overlapping, the hair becomes weak and ultimately breaks.”

Real question: Would I have to chop it off? “When the hair starts to tangle easily or when you notice your hair is simply not growing due to breakage, this is when you need to head to your local salon for a haircut that takes all of the dead, split ends away.” Answer: Real question: Yes.

Garren, renowned celebrity hairstylist and cofounder of R+Co, confirmed Cunningham’s assessment. “If it’s severely broken, a lot of girls want to hang on to long, broken hair,” he said, “[but] it’s not pretty at the bottom if it’s all shredded.”

And shredded it was. When I walked into my new salon, I was prepared to lop off the vast majority, but my stylist talked me down. She said that the damage was underneath several layers of (intact) hair and unnoticeable to most people. So I got a two-inch, all-around trim. Not so bad at all, right?

But the drama was far from over. One reality of having damaged hair: tangles like whoa. Curiously, even though my hair was a knotted mess, it also looked incredibly thick. Cunningham explained that there was a bird’s-nest effect happening. “Split ends are coarse, dead ends of the hair,” she said. “Essentially, all these little pieces grab together, causing knots and tangles.”

So, with Cunningham and Garren’s help, I completely made over my styling routine. Garren pooh-poohed my favorite everyday styling product, Oribe Dry Finishing Spray. “Texturizing spray is definitely a no-no,” he told me. “It doesn’t take evenly on the hair, and it’ll make the hair get fuzzier at the ends.” I started relying on his recommendation, R+Co Park Avenue Blow Out Balm, to give my waves softness and very light hold. Cunningham prescribed hair oil (she likes Redken Diamond Oil), which made my fried, frayed ends a little sleeker.

I wouldn’t have given the colorist who burned me — err, my hair — a second chance.

Katie McCarthy
At both their suggestions, I got serious about hair masks. I made use of every bizarre product sample left over from my days as a beauty editor. When a publicist emailed me to ask if I wanted to test the Drybar's new Bay Breeze Hydrating Shot, I jumped on it. “OMG, YES, PLEASE SEND NOW,” I wrote back. It was a balm for my hair and my ego.

Lastly, I did the thing I dreaded most: I gave up my nightly shampoo habit. “I would say to shampoo and condition every other day or every three days,” Garren advised. It was rough at first, but I eventually got used to the new normal, especially when I discovered my new hero product, Pureology Strength Cure Cleansing Condition. I never thought a cleansing conditioner would do anything for my fine hair but make it flat and greasy. To my surprise, it made it feel fluffy and clean, and it also felt smoother and more hydrated than it did after I washed with regular shampoo.

In the end, there are a few things I would have done differently (other than the obvious not going to that colorist in the first place, of course). After the ordeal, I would have done what I originally planned to when I got my "fix it" cut, and chopped off much more. While the condition of my hair has improved a bit, I still find those dandelion-fuzz broken hairs on my T-shirts all the time.

But most importantly, I wouldn’t have given the colorist who burned me — err, my hair — a second chance. It’s hard finding girlfriends in adulthood, especially in a brand-new city, so I was eager to replicate the social network I had in L.A. and be buddies with my colorist. Maybe I could've asked her out for a drink, but a beautiful friendship should never start with bad hair.

Out beauty editor Maria Del Russo also experienced damaged hair due to bleaching. After her first touch-up, however, she realized her scalp had been damaged — badly. Here's how she learned to heal her scabbed scalp.
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