When lockdown was announced in March, I, along with every other beauty fanatic I know, felt a wave of panic as hairdressers, nail salons and skin clinics closed. My relationships with my colourist, hairstylist, dermatologist, nail technician and eyebrow lady were all put on hold and I started to worry that I would end up resembling something out of Teen Wolf.
That said, lockdown has been the perfect catalyst for switching up my look. I didn't have to worry about The Outside World for a while so in April I gave myself a big chop. It ended up being a defining moment for me. Finally — yes, finally! — I was at peace with my curls. Over the last few months I have tended to my tresses like a precious garden, watering daily, massaging my scalp, coating my curls with deep conditioner and butters and giving myself a trim every six weeks. While my hair has grown considerably as a result of hiding my straighteners and tongs (goodbye, heat damage), I still felt that my crown was missing some va va voom.
Naturally, like everyone during the summer, I decided to bleach my hair. Before you gasp in horror (because yes, bleaching at home can be hit or miss), I did my research. I watched countless "How To Bleach Hair At Home" and "How To Bleach Afro Curly Hair At Home" videos on YouTube. I flooded various WhatsApp groups with questions. One of my friends suggested I try BLEACH London Plex Bleach, £17.50, which is specially formulated for afro hair. I purchased the bundle, which included the Plex Bleach and an Ice White Toner. I'll be honest, though. I was terrified. I've never bleached my hair at home before, let alone used a toner to get to my desired shade. I had no idea what to do and the bundle sat in the corner of my room for weeks. Then one day, I took the plunge. I decided to give myself DIY balayage.
Balayage is a French freehand hair-painting technique. Lighter pieces (two or three shades lighter than the rest of your hair) are blended in among natural strands without harsh lines. The method is designed to mimic the way hair naturally lightens in the sun for a believable, subtle highlight. Think of it as similar to using Sun In as a teen but without burning your ends off, so it won't look horrendous in a few months' time when it grows out.
I spent hours googling balayage looks, taking inspiration from hundreds of curly-haired beauties and celebrities, from Jessica Alba and Elaine Welteroth to Halle Berry, in order to understand how the light would hit each curl. It's very different from straight hair. I decided that I would paint the bleach onto each curl individually and focus on highlighting the curls around my face to brighten and lift.
BLEACH London's Plex Bleach was pretty straightforward to use. The bundle included the bleach powder, developing lotion and a small sample of the Reincarnation Mask to condition at the end. Using a tint brush, I mixed the bleach powder and developing lotion in a mixing bowl to create a white, grainy paste before sectioning my hair into four parts. I chose to start at the front of my hair as I wanted that area to be lighter, and applied the bleach freehand to the curls around my hairline and my fringe. I started halfway up the strands and coated the ends, pinning them back with butterfly clips as I went. Thankfully my bathroom has two mirrors, one in front and one behind, so I was able to apply the bleach and see every section. I made sure that all of my ends were coated.
I used around half of the bleach mixture before putting on my shower cap and letting the bleach develop, checking my hair every five minutes. I left the bleach on for a total of 30 minutes (including application time) before adding some more bleach to the top strands of my hair for extra brightness. At this point I was winging it because I felt I had nothing to lose. I thought that if it went wrong, I could always dye it brown again with my foolproof Moroccan Oil Colour Depositing Mask in Cocoa, £28.85. This is always a great fallback option for hair boo-boos.
After I rinsed out the bleach, I dried my hair to check the colour. At first I was alarmed by the brassiness, partly because I've been so used to being brunette. Change is always going to be a shock. I opted to use the toner and applied it exactly how I would a conditioner: I lathered it all over my head, ensuring every strand was covered so it would be even, before covering my hair with a shower cap and letting it work its magic for 30 minutes. I rinsed it out and applied Olaplex's No. 3 Hair Perfector, £26, to repair any brittleness from the bleach. After that, I washed and conditioned my hair with the OG silver shampoo, PRO:VOKE Touch of Silver Colour Care Shampoo, £4.19, and Conditioner, £4.99, to get rid of any remaining brassiness.
Here's some advice: if you're hoping to achieve DIY balayage at home, don't be alarmed by the immediate result, especially if it's a huge colour change. It has been a few weeks since I bleached my hair and the colour has settled nicely into my strands; it's less brassy and the sun has naturally lightened the ends. When it comes to bleach, I'd suggest using little and often. Start on your mid-lengths and work your way down to the ends. Also, freehand paint the bleach onto the top layers of your hair to create a natural highlight.
Once I diffused my hair, I was able to see the real results and I was over the moon. I had expected my hair to become drier and perhaps see the ends split or break. I'd mentally prepared myself to sob all evening but my hair was in perfect condition and the colour was just what I had hoped for. Admittedly, I have gone from looking like Jonathan Creek to Orphan Annie, but I'll take it!
Most of all, this experience has highlighted just how easy the DIY balayage technique is, especially as you can do it in the comfort of your own bathroom. Of course, I do miss the salon experience and I'm looking forward to supporting my local. However, £17.50 for a pretty seamless at-home balayage is an undeniable bargain compared to my £170 salon job. Minus the head massages, tea and biscuits and salon goss (sob!) it's a great option should we find ourselves back under lockdown (perhaps inevitable) or if I'm low on cash (often). Now I know how kind Plex Bleach is to my fine 3c hair, maybe I'll decide to go lighter. Maybe.