hairy situations

Can You Bleach Your Own Hair at Home?

Photo: 5second/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It sounds like a joke when I say that I’m no longer sure what my natural hair looks like, but it’s true. Growing up, it was brown and wavy, and there was so much of it that it felt like a weight on my head. I hated it. I spent hours straightening it with a flat iron every night before school, achieving at best a mane that was horselike and highly vulnerable to the elements.

Then, when I was 17, I went blonde. The bleach transformed my hair’s texture, making it thinner and easier to style. Lightening my hair seemed to lighten my entire being. My life became more interesting. I have never considered going back.

But what if I don’t have a choice?

As the pandemic upended daily life, I watched as friends and the beauty influencers I follow posted about taking their hair into their own hands — maybe through color acquired online, or custom kits sent from salons they could no longer visit in person. As my roots grew longer, I sat through enough tutorials to convince myself that I might be capable of highlighting my own hair. It’s true that even at the most expensive salons I’ve frequented, stylists have sometimes damaged my hair with bleach, but times are tough and I’m extraordinarily vain. It couldn’t be totally impossible to do for myself what I’ve spent countless hours watching professionals do for me, could it? Even after I saw Louise Linton emerge from a DIY bleaching experiment looking like Draco Malfoy, I was still considering it.

Then I texted my colorist, Devin Cook, to ask if it was the worst idea she’d ever heard.

“Please don’t,” she wrote back.

To learn more about why I am condemned to look like Sky Ferreira’s ugly sister until life is back to normal, I spoke to Cook about why she won’t let me bleach my own hair and how the beauty industry is coping in quarantine.

The author pre-quarantine. Photo: Olivia Nuzzi

Have you been watching in horror as people attempt to do their own color?
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about how hair dye is flying off the shelves now, and I see a lot of people reaching out to stylists trying to figure out ways to get their roots done. It makes sense, because a lot of the workspace has moved to, like, Zoom or online. So people still want to look good and feel good.

I’ve seen everything from stylists posting tutorials to certain companies reaching out to an audience, trying to get people to buy things. There’s been a little bit of a divide as far as, like, the industry’s professional stance on bleaching, and then, like, how people are buying things and taking on box dye at home.

What’s the biggest issue with box dye?
With box dye, they don’t know who’s buying it. So they make it as strong as possible so that it could work for anyone. That can cause a lot of damage to the hair. And there might not be solutions until months down the road, until we’re able to reopen.

Because normally, if you fuck up your hair at home, you can just go straight to a salon for a color correction.
Usually, when someone uses box dye, we get a call the next day. It’s just very rare that it’s gonna turn out okay, and that’s simply because you just have no idea what’s in it. You don’t know how it’ll affect your skin, or your scalp, or if you’ll have an allergic reaction, or if it’ll make your hair fall off. It’s dangerous!

Are you seeing a lot of people making mistakes on social media? 
Oh my gosh, yes. Especially in the age of TikTok and social-media influence in general. I’ve seen a huge wave of these teenagers — or just anyone, honestly — just taking bleach or color or scissors into their own hands. I’ve seen random haircuts on Instagram with kitchen scissors. Or like, “My boyfriend cuts my hair,” or like, “My boyfriend does my roots.”

Can you explain why bleach specifically is so dangerous to use on yourself?
Everyone’s in this situation right now, where they’re like, “What are my options?” I would say bleach is probably worst-case scenario, simply because even as a licensed professional, speaking on behalf of the whole entire community, bleach is something everyone should be scared of.

Bleach is a chemical that has a different reaction on everyone. So when you think about someone doing it at home, that can be really terrifying. There are a lot of signs that bleach can give that the hair’s about to fall off that I don’t necessarily think the general public knows about. And people don’t understand that bleach can make the hair fall off even when it’s just, like, orange or dark. There is a misconception that bleach will only make your hair fall off if you’re trying to make it white, or otherwise achieve an unrealistic outcome. But in a lot of cases, bleach can cause damage before the hair even reaches the desired result. Plus, it can cause burns to the scalp. This is a chemical that can cause permanent damage. And a lot of times, that damage can’t be immediately corrected by a professional at a salon, even when you can go to a salon.

I would look at it like trying to do your own Botox at home. Would anyone do that? I’m scared to even bleach my hair at home!

Okay, so, what’s your advice to people — specifically me — trying to figure out what to do and feeling horrible about their hair right now?
I would say, honestly, the best thing to do is just know that everyone’s going through it. It’s a really good time to let roots grow, to do hair masks, to kind of try out new hairstyles. You’re probably listening to all this and thinking, Fuck off.

But, honestly, just to give your hair a break. I wish that there were more things on the market, but there really aren’t products that allow blondes to be safe during a pandemic. There aren’t as many options as there are for brunettes. That’s just kind of what it is for right now, unfortunately!

Not that I’m considering this, but have you seen a lot of colorists doing house calls despite the government guidelines for distancing?
Some. I’ve had people offer me, like, X amount of money, or what they believe is a safe space, to do their hair. But specifically within the D.C. metro area, the cosmetology licensing board has said if they find any stylists doing house calls, or hair outside the salon, they’re going to revoke our licenses. They’re really cracking down. And when everyone started to get sick, there was an emotional part of this, too — like, my best friend’s dad has it. So, you start to feel guilty thinking about money or your job before your health, or other people’s health. That’s sort of where the moral compass has been confusing, because it’s frustrating to be without a job, but it’s also like, Dude, you need to stay inside. I am not essential.

Hopefully, when some restrictions are lifted, stylists will be able to do house calls, but until then, just don’t touch your hair.

How has it been for you and your colleagues? 
With us, being commission-based, it got really scary really fast. I think any stylist that you know is probably relying on a partner or savings, so we’re really betting on support from our clients on the other side of this. At first, I saw salons dealing with this in different ways — offering gift cards, trying to keep their staff employed and pay them for as long as they could. But at this point, it seems like everyone has probably been laid off and is filing for unemployment. It’s been tough, and I don’t think a lot of salons will survive this. I’m very curious to see what demand is like on the other side of this — will people immediately go back to getting their hair done? Or will they be traumatized and want to focus on keeping money in the bank and not splurging on beauty services? It’s a terrifying thought.

Have you felt, because hair color and styling is a luxury service, that workers are not thought of as “service workers” in the same way that, say, bartenders or restaurant employees or delivery drivers are? 
Definitely, like, I see restaurants and bars getting coverage everywhere because they’ve been hit so hard. But whereas the governor of Virginia announced that restaurants can serve alcohol to go, in the beauty industry, no one has provided us with any potential solutions — however unsatisfying they are. I think the best way for customers to help is to reach out to your stylist, or anyone you have an immediate relationship with in the service industry, and just ask, “Hey, how can I help?”

Why Can’t I Bleach My Own Hair?