George founder and veteran hairdresser, Lisa Nguyen, compares the available options to help tame bleached hair, and explains why simpler is usually best.
Bleached locks are a delicate breed of sunflower.
To take your hair even one shade lighter, an oxidising agent must be used, which is usually some combination of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia.
The bleaching process lifts the outer cuticle of your hair, allowing the oxidiser to fully penetrate each strand and create an even result.
But repeated bleaching can permanently raise the hair’s cuticles, allowing rapid and ongoing moisture loss.
This makes a low-maintenance balayage much easier on strands than lightening from the roots, which requires 6-weekly upkeep.
Bleaching also damages the internal bonds of the hair, causing them to weaken and break; this is noticed as increased hair fall, split and uneven ends, and fly-aways.
Bleached hair is typically dry, coarse, porous and snappier than a caffeine addict.
Greater porosity not only lets moisture and nutrients escape, but invites environmental damage in, so hair is more vulnerable to heat, UV rays, chemical exposure and pollution.
In sum, bleaching causes a cocktail of factors that combine for bad hair days galore, and that’s not the kind of cocktail anyone wants (I’d rather a mojito, thank you very much!)
Lightened locks can look stunning, sure!
But over time, they’ll probably have you pining for the sleek virgin strands of your youth.
It’s when you start shedding like a Pomeranian that you might begin desperately hunting for a fix – potentially blowing hundreds of dollars on salon treatments that may not benefit your hair long term, or at all.
Let’s take a look at the treatment options out there for bleached hair, their pros and cons and whether they’ll truly rehabilitate scarecrow strands.
Thermal Reconditioning (aka Japanese Hair Straightening)
Creates a shiny, frizz-free, poker-straight finish
Cuts down on styling time
Saves the hair from regular styling iron use
Lasts 6-12 months
Addressing chemical damage with extra chemicals? Hmm …
Very exxy: expect to pay upwards of $600 for the patented Yuko straightening system
Beware of low-cost knock-offs and inexperienced stylists
Some women have reported extreme hair damage and loss after treatment
Be prepared for an awkward growing-out phase if your hair is very wavy or curly
Not suitable for pregnant women
Think of thermal reconditioning as a reverse perm.
A series of chemical treatments are added to the hair to restructure its bonds, but instead of curls, you’re left with the smooth, pin straight hair you dream about while suffering your millionth dead arm, as you make another pass with your styling iron.
The idea of a year-long breakup with your straightener is a bewitching temptress. It’s enough to have you staking out your nearest Yuku specialist and throwing hundred dollar bills at their feet.
But should you?
The thermal reconditioning process takes several hours, during which a chemical solution is applied to the hair, before it is rinsed, blow-dried and flat-ironed repeatedly in tiny sections, to lock in straightness and shine.
Next comes a neutralising agent, to help restore the hair’s (damaged) bonds and pH level.
Finally, hair is rinsed, blow-dried and flat-ironed (again).
The process is capital E extensive, exposing your hair to a chemical cocktail, to which there is no way of knowing how it will react.
Thermal reconditioning may not be suitable for extremely damaged colour-treated hair, which speaks volumes.
Even on healthy hair, it can wreak havoc when performed incorrectly, so be wary of inexperienced stylists!
The process removes 70%–90% of curl and volume – something to think about if your hair is already quite fine or thinning, or if you often like to change up your style.
Your natural body and wave won’t return until you grow out the treated areas of your hair and further chemical restructuring may damage your hair beyond repair.
Originally lauded as a formaldehyde-free alternative to keratin straightening systems, some salons have ceased offering thermal reconditioning, due to reports of severe hair damage and hair loss.
As a bleachie, your hair is at increased risk of damage from chemical straightening and will need to be assessed and patch tested to see if it can tolerate the process.
Lisa’s verdict: Don’t do it, but if you must do it, hunt down the most experienced and reputable Yuku provider in your state!
Specifically, look for reviews from fellow bleach-goers, so you know you’re not signing up for more split ends.
Keratin Straightening Treatment (aka the Brazilian Blowout)
Eliminates frizz and creates a smooth, sleek finish
The option of relaxed waves or completely straight locks
Seals over protein loss with the same protein found in hair
Reduces drying and styling time
Lasts up to 6 months
Many formulas contain formaldehyde, which can be dangerous when inhaled
May cause further hair damage, due to the chemicals and heat used
Not suitable during pregnancy
Chlorinated water and salt water will shorten the life of treatment
Expect to pay upwards of $250
Where thermal reconditioning breaks down and restructures the bonds of each hair strand, for smooth, dead straight locks, a keratin straightening treatment coats the hair, temporarily, creating a sleek, frizz-free finish.
The big upsides to keratin straightening are that it is less chemically intensive than thermal reconditioning and doesn’t alter your hair’s structure.
It also offers customisable style, so you can opt for max straightness, or simply relax your natural curls or waves if you’re not ready to say goodbye to them completely.
But will keratin straightening restore the health of your bleach blitzed locks?
The short answer is probably not.
While a keratin treatment can create the *appearance* of healthier hair, adding shine and banishing frizz, the process involves chemical application and prolonged exposure to hot styling tools, which will further deplete already struggling strands.
It’s for this reason that keratin straightening should not be carried out within a few weeks of bleach application.
Keratin straightening is just as time and labour intensive as a thermal, requiring at least 3 hours in the chair.
Your hair will be washed thoroughly and roughly blow-dried before the keratin solution is applied. Shortly after, the hair is blow-dried with the product remaining in the hair, before being sectioned and flat ironed at high heat, which activates the keratin.
The hair is then shampooed, to wash out the solution, and blow-dried a final time.
Unlike a thermal, which is permanent, a keratin treatment will wash out over time, creating a less stark contrast when your natural hair grows in.
Be mindful that exposure to salt water and chlorine will speed up this process, so cap up if you’re an avid swimmer and consider a shower filter, as tap water can have surprising concentrations of chlorine and chloramine.
I have to stress that applying a keratin treatment will not actually restore your hair’s natural keratin, which is lost through bleaching.
It’s a short term fix that will fill in damaged areas of the hair and seal over split cuticles, but if your hair is already extensively damaged, you may well find that your hair is in worse condition once the treatment washes out.
Again, you have to ponder the wisdom of addressing chemical damage by applying extra chemicals to the hair.
The keratin solution contains a mixed bag of synthetic chemicals, including methylene glycol, which notoriously combine to release formaldehyde.
A few formaldehyde-free incarnations have popped up, but these certainly aren’t chemical-free.
There is no such thing a natural salon keratin treatment and it’s for this reason that you should avoid altogether during pregnancy.
Lisa’s verdict: Preferable to thermal reconditioning because it’s not quite as harsh on the hair but be mindful that keratin treatments will do further damage.
Opt for a formaldehyde-free variety and be sure to do your due diligence – find a stylist who is well versed in using keratin treatments on bleached locks.
Salon Hair Repair Treatments
Works to rebuild hair rather than masking over damage
Doesn’t require a lengthy salon appointment
A quick and easy add-on whenever you visit the salon for a cut and colour
Results depend on frequency of use
More costly than DIY treatments and can’t be applied as often
Some formulas contain silicone and questionable synthetics
Some reports of hair condition being worse after treatment
Salon standard hair repair treatments, like Olaplex, K18 and their ilk, purport to rebuild damaged strands from the inside, out.
Olaplex has a stellar reputation and is widely used in salons the world over. It contains chemicals which open up the hair cuticle and rebuild broken disulphide bonds in the hair structure.
There are two formulations in the Olaplex range which can only be applied in-salon. No. 1 is mixed in with your hair colour or lightening solution, and No. 2, is applied after colouring and left in for at least 20 minutes.
Treatment success depends on frequent use, and ideally, you’ll visit the salon a few times in the space of three weeks, for your hair to be treated with the salon-only formulas, as well as following up at home with a slew of DIY products.
You’re looking at around $50 for each salon Olaplex treatment and an additional $49 for the take-home treatment. And be prepared for the shampoo and conditioner upsell.
It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re investing $200 in the first weeks, alone, then tacking an additional $100 onto the cost of your foils every 5-6 weeks, it adds up.
If you’re a clean beauty queen, Olaplex and other conventional salon treatments likely won’t be your cup of tea.
Many contain silicone, which can build up in the hair, dulling shine and preventing the nourishing ingredients in treatments and conditioners from penetrating your strands and improving their quality and texture.
You’ll also find a bevy of synthetics within, including parabens, propylene glycol, fragrances, petrochemicals and phthalates up the wazoo.
You may have heard about the recent controversy surrounding Olaplex’s use of fertility-impairing chemical, lilium, which has since been removed from their formulas.
Some users have reported scalp sensitivity, hair damage and hair loss with Olaplex treatment, along with changes to hair texture, including coarseness and dryness – yikes!
Lisa’s Verdict: While Olaplex and the like are loved by many, it’s impossible to know how damaged and chemically-treated strands will respond to additional chemical processes - we’re all so different and so is our hair!
If you’re tempted to experiment with salon hair repair treatments, do so with a reputable stylist, and follow up at home with a nourishing, yuck-free shampoo and hair mask that will truly moisturise and replenish your hair.
Take careful note of any negative changes to your hair after your first couple of treatments and discontinue if you’re not seeing improvement.
The Humble Hair Mask
Easy to incorporate into your daily routine
Loads your hair with moisture and nutrients
Can be used as often as your hair needs
Affordable and accessible
Ensures that healthy hair grows from the root
The best formulas will double as a conditioner
Watch out for unnecessary silicones and nasty synthetics in some formulas
Some masks can be heavy and leave an oily residue
You may need to experiment to find a treatment frequency that works for your hair type
Hair masks are absolute magic for sizzled strands.
They’re packed with the moisture that damaged hair is crying out for, usually in the form of natural butters and oils.
When a formula gets its hydration and nutrients from natural ingredients, it’s a happy news day for hair.
Because moisture, vitamins, proteins and minerals in their natural form are more bioavailable, this means that the hair and scalp are better able to absorb and benefit from them.
Nourishing hair masks do something that Olaplex and straightening treatments don’t: they work to ensure that healthy hair is growing from the roots.
By loading up your scalp with the nutrients it needs, you’ll grow stronger hair that is more resilient to future bleaching or highlighting.
At the same time, the moisture and proteins in a hair mask will fill in damaged areas of the hair strand, seal the cuticle and create a silky, manageable finish.
Hydrated hair equals a smooth, detangled, frizz-free do!
It may take a bit of experimentation to a) find a hair mask that is the right concentration for your hair type, and b) a treatment schedule that doesn’t leave you with limp, greasy locks.
Our Better Hair Days Restore & Repair Hair Mask is so light you can use it as a daily conditioner, but so hydrating, you’ll see results even when you leave it in for a couple of minutes.
It’s packed with the best that nature and science have to offer, with no harmful synthetics or silicones to coat the hair with residue or mess with the delicate skin on your scalp.
Lisa’s verdict: A hair mask is your best bet for giving bleached hair intense nourishment as often as it needs.
The best hair masks are hydrating but lightweight, so you can use them at every wash, allowing you to quickly see a difference in your hair’s texture and shine.
You really can’t go past the Better Hair Days Restore & Repair Mask for restoring the condition of your hair.
After 20 years of hairdressing, I know exactly what damaged hair needs to thrive, and exactly what it doesn’t, and this formula reflects that.
George has countless bottle blonde customers who rave about the difference that Better Hair Days has made to their hair. See them testify, here.