I’ll set the scene: you’re a natural brunette and you are falling in love with the idea of going just that little bit lighter. I’m not talking Platinum, but perhaps a softer, hazel brown or even a deep digestive biscuit blonde. That’s not so much to ask, is it?
Rows and rows of DIY hair colour kits exist in shops displaying these shades, so how difficult can it be to buy one, mix it up and slap it on, turning your wintery, draining dark brown hair to a summery, light brunette within the hour?
You buy the colour, follow the instructions, towel dry your hair and immediately have a sense of foreboding at the wet result. You reassure yourself that all newly coloured hair has that fluorescent orange glow… but then it’s time to blow-dry. And the verdict is in – the result isn’t a beautiful soft brown, but a bright and brash ginger!
So how did this happen, and how can you prevent your hair from going orange when you lighten it?
Natural Brunettes are also Unnatural Redheads
First things first: natural dark hair is formed with not only dark pigments of black and brown (known as Eumelanin) but also an abundance of red and gold pigments (known as Pheomelanin). In fact, it is the vast quantity of Pheomelanin that gives dark brunette hair its depth and vitality. Without these underlying red and gold pigments, the black and brown pigments would sit against the keratin fibre of the hair – which is yellow – and display as green!
However, while those red and gold Pheomelanin pigments serve a tremendous purpose for the natural brunette, they can prove highly problematic when you attempt to lift the hair colour, even by just one shade.
Navigating the Colour Pool
The Eumelanin and Pheomelanin pigments differ in size and quantity within the hair. Imagine dark hair as a swimming pool. The brown and black Eumelanin pigments are like large beach balls and are in low supply; the red Pheomelanin pigments are like smaller footballs, but there are many more of them in the pool. Meanwhile, the gold Pheomelanin pigments are like tiny tennis balls, but there is a huge number of them within the pool.
Next, imagine a traditional hair bleach is Pac-Man, entering this swimming pool and devouring these balls. Very quickly, it would eat the large brown and black beach balls (as there are fewer of them) before moving on to those red footballs. Once the red footballs have been eaten, the Pac-Man bleach will start consuming the gold pigments.
At this point, naturally dark hair would have been bleached to a blonde base.
Hair Colourants are Designed to ‘Colour’, not ‘Lighten’
Unlike hair bleach however, the purpose of a hair colourant is to add colour pigments to your hair, not remove them. Generally, the standard peroxide strength of around 6% (20 volume) and an ammonia formula, found in most boxed permanent hair colourants, will lift your natural hair depths no more than around two levels.
So, if we go back to that idea of the swimming pool and Pac-Man, you can see why trying to add colour to hair containing different pigments could lead to the orange we all want to avoid.
Think about it: the Pac-Man is not particularly hungry. It eats those dark beach balls, but is full and ready for bed by the time it has reached the red footballs and orange tennis balls. What’s more, the product is attempting to add more (artificial) pigment to your hair, which usually contains gold undertones to prevent it appearing flat. The result? Bright orange hair. Yikes.
So how can brunettes go from a dark brunette to a light brunette or dark blonde, without creating the clown effect? There are generally two options:
Option 1: Strip the Hair
Drain the swimming pool and refill. Stripping your hair might seem like a scary option, but when done correctly it’s both the safest and most effective method to achieve a lighter brunette shade in a dark base.
When you strip the hair, you lighten all of that underlying dark, red and gold pigment, leaving behind a light gold base that can then be easily recoloured (darker) to your desired shade.
You should only ever strip hair colour with a non-ammonia lightener, and no stronger than 6% 20 volume peroxide. Never use harsh bleaches or strong peroxide developers for this purpose, as it will compromise the hair condition, and prevent effective subsequent recolouring to get your desired light brown shade.
Ultimately, stripping your hair correctly is the safest way to remove your unwanted underlying red and gold pigment, ready to be replaced with a new, lighter shade.
Option 2: Neutralise the Hair
For this option, imagine you’re filling the orange swimming pool with blue-green water! Neutralising your hair is the alternative to stripping it back, but be warned you might not achieve an instant fix; you may need to keep building the neutralising tone up in the hair.
The second issue with neutralising an unwanted orange result is that it cannot create a lighter effect. To neutralise orange, you need to add an ash (blue) pigment to the hair, which combines and creates depth as well as neutralising. The more orange the result, the more ash blue tone is needed, and if the hair is orange-red, you need an ash-green tone to counteract it.
However, the neutralising approach is a more simplistic process than stripping and re-colouring. With this option, you are essentially pouring blue-green water onto that orange-red pool to create a final tan brown.
A good starting point is to wash your hair several times with a purple shampoo, as sometimes this can kick out a degree of the warmth. Follow it with a product such as Colour Restore Cool Ash, which is an anti-orange toner.
If It’s Really Orange, Use Lilac
If you perceive the warmth to be really orange – that is, your head is practically glowing – you might need a more heavy duty neutralisation approach. While I created Colour Restore Lilac Grey to produce that exact shade in blonde hair, the product is also great when used as an emergency toner for very orange hair.
It works in two ways. The shade’s grey tone is formed with ash-blue pigments, which neutralise the gold; meanwhile, the lilac tone combines with the deeper unwanted red-orange pigments and creates a russet. The result is a muted brunette.
This principle would also apply if you used another brand of pastel lilac on your orange hair. However, make sure it’s a light pastel shade (not a deep purple) and that you also use a blue/silver shampoo to regularly wash the hair, as you will need to load up on those anti-gold molecules.
Next Time, Do a Strand Test
Prevention is better than cure, after all. The easiest way to prevent a whole head of unwanted orange is to always do a strand test first.
It sounds obvious, but mixing small amounts of the colour and applying it to a strand of hair before embarking on whole head application can be a life saver. If you’re not sure about the strand test result, don’t be afraid to try another strand, or to admit the colourant you have purchased will not give the results you had hoped for.
Ultimately, it will end up costing you more money if you need to buy products to correct a result that you weren’t expecting; writing off a box of permanent colour is only a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.
One thought on “How to Lighten your Hair Colour Without Turning it Orange”
Jill M Harrison
Having been bleaching ( or, more recently lightening with a high lift tint ) for 40 years so was intimately familiar with this issue ( I’m a base 5 to 6 ) .
I knew of the colour pigment issues but could never quite get my head around the exact mechanism – til now ! The PAC Man analogy is genius !
With all the great products now available, these days I can pretty much lighten 4 levels and tone if I have too but wish I’d known what to do all those years ago when a hat was often the only option 😂