Between hidden rainbows, jewel tones, and pantry-inspired shades (like red velvet and mulled wine), I’ve got serious whiplash from all the Instagram hair color trends. Each one seems more eccentric than the last, and honestly, most of them don’t seem to work on women who look like me (brown skin, jet-black hair, natural curls). Because of this, I have no problem resisting the hair-color hype.
But that all changed when I saw Beyoncé’s most recent style change (leave it to Queen Bey to make me a believer). During her On The Run II Tour, she debuted cocoa-colored hair with pieces of her iconic caramel blonde framing her face. Her stylist Neal Farinah dubbed the look “hot chocolate hair,” and I was in love. Finally, a color that looks good on brown skin and wouldn’t be considered last week’s hair trend after a few months passed. I was game.
But I haven't dyed my hair since getting horrid yellow streaks in high school (which doesn't really count if you ask me). And after that debacle, I was nervous permanent dye would permanently eff up my curls. Even though I wear my hair straight 90% of the time, I want to keep my ringlets as healthy as possible. So, I took the time to research colorists who cater to natural hair. After weeks of searching hashtags on Instagram, I found Jaxcee, color director at HairRules salon in New York City, who has years of experience bleaching curls and Afros. I knew my 3B hair would be safest in her hands.
I walked into Hair Rules seeking hot chocolate hair with subtle highlights, but two weeks later I was practically blonde. Here are the things you need to know if you're considering a drastic hair color change for your curls.
You don't always need bleach to lighten your base.
To start, Jaxcee lightened my jet-black hair to create a brown base. She used Pravana permanent light brown hair color to lift my entire head to a warm cinnamon tint. “This color is ammoniated, and there’s no bleach or lightener,” Jaxcee explained to me. “You only need bleach to lift your base if you're going more than four levels lighter.” In other words, since my virgin hair was only transforming to a light brown, no dye was required. After about 30 minutes, my base was lifted, and it was time to get on with the fun stuff: highlights.
Hand-painting is the best method for coloring curls.
Jaxcee used the foilyage technique to do my highlights. Foilyage is where foils and balayage meet. She hand painted my curls, then wrapped each highlight in foil to trap in heat. “Keeping the color in foils allows it to process better,” she says. To create warm blonde highlights (think: milk in your hot cocoa), Jaxcee mixed up three different bowls of bleach with different volumes of peroxide: 10,20, and 40, respectively. “Using different volumes of peroxide will lift the hair to different shades of blonde,” Jaxcee explains. “Some pieces will be lighter than others, so you can achieve a multidimensional look.” After placing my hair in foils, Jaxcee let it cook for 40 minutes. Once the bleach processed, I was back in the shampoo bowl to remove my foils.
A gloss keeps blonde from looking brassy.
After bleaching my hair, Jaxcee applied a gloss. "A gloss is a demi-permanent coloring agent that revives your hair color and makes it vibrant and shiny," she says. To mimic the creamy froth on a fresh hot chocolate, she coated my bleached pieces in beige gloss. But a gloss can also be used to darken strands (more on that later), and they are easy to use at home between appointments to keep color fresh.
Bleach and split ends don't mix.
The morning after my color session, I was really able to get a look at what my new hair looked like in natural sunlight. Running my fingers through my hair, I noticed my ends felt like straw and looked downright raggedy (I desperately needed a trim). “Bleach can emphasize already dry or damaged ends by drying them out further,” Jaxcee says. “Lighter color can also highlight things you wouldn’t normally see on jet-black hair.” So, I made an appointment to go back to Hair Rules for a cut. Anthony Dickey, owner of Hair Rules salon, chopped my fried, dead ends into a cropped lob for "sexy movement."
At this stage, I also realized that I loved the lighter pieces surrounding my face so much I wanted more. Prior to coloring my hair, no one told me it was addictive, but as I envisioned myself as a blonde in the mirror, I quickly realized it's a slippery slope. So I went back to Jaxcee, thirsty for more highlights.
Curls can survive bleach without looking limp and frazzled, but you have to do it the right way.
I was nervous that more highlights would completely fry my hair, but Jaxcee reassured me that natural hair can be color treated and still thrive when done correctly. The key to avoiding damage is not overprocessing and keeping your hair hydrated. “Single process color doesn’t damage hair texture per se,” she says. “But if hair is overprocessed from bleach, it can cause curls to loosen temporarily. If your hair is super dry leading up to the chemical process, your curls can also loosen.”
This time, we spent over an hour highlighting my hair to achieve more blonde. My entire head was covered in foils, and as I gazed in the mirror I was anxious: Am I going overboard? Would my hair match with my outfits? Would I have any curls left? But there was one step left before I could find out: shadowing.
Going darker at the roots will help the color grow out more naturally.
To contrast the vibrant highlights, Jaxcee warmed up my roots with the shadowing technique. "Shadowing is when you apply a darker gloss to the roots of the hair," she explains. Once my roots were shadowed, she followed with a beige glaze to give my highlights a "coffee creamer" effect.
The color process was a long one, but it was more than worth it in the end. When I faced the mirror after my hair was completely styled, to say that I was feelin' myself would be a huge understatement. This must be what Beyoncé feels like after her hair appointments, was the only thing that danced through my mind.
Having colored curls requires a lot of maintenance.
Jaxcee sent me on my way with a list of homework. "Natural hair is delicate, and you can really cause damage if you don't care for your hair color correctly," she says. Her to-do list: Use a sulfate-free shampoo (or cleansing cream) to gently lift dirt from your hair, invest in a magical deep conditioner and use it weekly, avoid excessive heat styling, and — most importantly — keep your hair hydrated.
I have to admit, my hair was feeling drier than usual, so when my first wash day as a blonde baddie came around, I pulled out the big guns. I shampooed my hair with Kérastase Elixir Ultime Shampoo, which is oil enriched to add shine to dull hair. I followed with the sister conditioner and gently detangled my strands with a wide-tooth comb. Masking, according to Jaxcee, "is like giving your hair medicine," so to treat my strands I mixed Kérastase Elixir Ultime Mask with the Vibrance-Boosting Mask by Frederic Fekkai. Both formulas are meant to restore dry hair and keep color vibrant. I let the cocktail sit on my hair for 15 minutes, and afterwards my curls felt incredibly slippery and were soft enough to run my fingers through. To style my hair, I used a color-safe leave-in conditioner, heat protectant, and finishing oil to straighten my hair and curl it into loose waves (like pictured above).
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Deciding to dye my hair (thanks to Beyoncé) was one of the most freeing choices I've made in a long time. A fresh color gave me a fresh perspective on hair: Life is too short to hang on to hair you're bored with. Do whatever you want with it — even if that means waking up one day and deciding to bleach it all. Maybe one day I'll decide to return to my dark hair, but for now I'm content living on the brighter side.