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The B word

From the straw-like strands of the ’80s to today’s #antibleach campaign by Sophia Hilton, bleach has a bad rep. But as bonding additives moved the industry along, the rise in gentler bleaches is a sign of an industry keen to put bleach back on the menu – but is this a good thing?

The pursuit of blonde hair has been a long and, often, inglorious journey. While the goddess of love, Aphrodite, was considered to have blonde hair, prostitutes in early Greek and Roman times had to dye their hair blonde or yellow to indicate their profession. Most wore wigs, but some soaked their hair in a solution made from the ashes of burnt plants or nuts to get the colour. Some centuries later, blonde hair was no longer limited to goddesses and prostitutes with blonde hair considered as the paragon of beauty during the Middle Ages, while Venetian women would recline in the sun with their hair drenched in corrosive solutions of lye to achieve golden locks. Today, blonde hair is still associated with female beauty – and women are still willing to dunk their hair in chemicals to acquire it.

Hair: Hooker & Young

But is bleach – the main method used to achieve platinum perfection – as harsh as it once was?

That ability to turn hair to straw puts the fear into any remotely colour-shy client – and colourists concerned with the damage bleach can do, especially when certain clients have used bleach for years, have often had to turn that client down.

“We’ve found that clients still want to go blonde no matter what happens to their hair, but this can compromise the colourist who either turns them away and they go somewhere less reputable, or feels they need to keep the client happy while potentially causing extra damage to the hair,” says, Michael Young, co-owner of Hooker & Young.

It’s a bit of a catch-22; more than half of all colour clients want blonde hair, but as the wellbeing trend emerges and the idea of self-care takes hold, more and more clients are beginning to prefer not to use the dreaded bleach for fear of what it could do to their hair or have had a previous bad experience.

“The most popular services for us in-salon all involve bleaching,” says OSMO’s ambassador and HX Hair owner, Heffy Wheeler. “But our clients are becoming more concerned with how they can keep their locks healthy, while on their lightening journey.”

The good news is, bleach isn’t in stasis.

“Bleach or pre-lightener is definitely evolving to meet demand, with manufacturers now producing products that cause much less harm to the client’s hair,” says Stuart Matuska, Toniy&Guy technical artistic director. “There are low-ammonia bleaches for those with lighter natural bases and other pre-lighteners that are designed for freehand techniques, specifically formulated to lift with more control and slowly to protect the hair.”

Of course, there are the bonding additives that entered the market a couple of years ago, designed to strengthen the hair during the colouring process, and these have slowly entered clients’ consciousness with Olaplex and L’Oréal Professionnel’s Smartbond leading the way. These have proved incredibly popular with clients concerned with chemical damage, and are a great add-on to increase your client’s bill, while being able to provide the service and lift they want.

Then there are the bleaches or lighteners that already include bonding additives, such as Revlon Professional’s Blonderful and Schwarzkopf Professionals Fibreplex.

But bonding additives still involve using the B word, so what if you could offer your client an alternative?

Most Wanted Colour Expert, Sophia Hilton, founder of Not Another Salon, started to experiment with high lift and light blonde tint that would lighten enough to apply certain vivid shades over them, experimenting and testing to discover exactly which bright shade specifically would lay over the top with each lightness.

“This is not always simple, and it’s certainly not suitable for all clients or all shades. It’s really is about finding the right client,” says Sophia.

Sophia’s #antibleach alternative is a great option for clients whose hair has been previously damaged by bleach, but she freely admits it’s not possible for those that want pastel shades – a trend that shows no signs of abating.

So how can you cater for these clients that want what they see on social media without having to turn them away when you know high lift tints or colour removers won’t work?

The rise in gentle bleaches could be the answer.

“Gentler bleaches definitely have a place in a colourist’s world,” says Revlon’s Ceri. “Revlon Professionals Gentle Meche lifts five shades and creates sun-kissed tones on natural hair without toning.”

Back in the day, gentler bleaches never had the required ‘oomph’ for lifting many levels, but this is changing. Davines has just released its Century of Light range, which features a high-lifting powder with a hair protective booster included in the formula, and a lightening oil for softer lifting that’s delicate even on sensitive scalps.

“Gentler bleaches are now just as effective and this is is due to the formulation and to the technology inside: being gentle is a plus not a minus in terms of performance,” says Laura Luciani, technical marketing manager at Davines.

IdHAIR educator, Lesley Stitt, believes clients are becoming less hesitant to get their hair bleached as the technology evolves.

There are definitely gentler bleaches out there, such as IdHAIR’s Bleach Me Gently bleach, which lifts up to six levels. It is ammonia free and so it does not swell the hair shaft,” says Lesley. “IdHAIR also has a Niophlex bleach. A bleach can destroy the inner structure of the hair, whereas Niophlex doesn’t – it rebuilds the inside structure of the hair as it lightens and keeps the integrity and structure of the hair while giving it strength.”

Then there are the bleaches that have evolved over the years. “We use two types of bleach to lighten hair – L’Oréal Professionnel Majimeche, which has ammonia-free technology and is able to achieve five levels of lift, and a L’Oréal Professionnel Platinum Plus and a lightening paste that works harder to lift hair,” says Joanna Macdonald, co-director of Linton & Mac. “The tougher bleach is infused with nutricerides and beeswax to protect the condition of the hair and is more comfortable on the scalp when doing a full head of bleach. Both are enriched with pro-keratin to help nourish the hair from within.”

Katie Hale, head of Colour at Charles Worthington Salons uses L’Oréal Professionnel Blond Studio Platinium Ammonia-free as “it contains no ammonia and when lightening gives the hair a soft sun-kissed blonde. It’s gentle on the hair while lifting.”

Hair: Linton & Mac

However, not everyone is convinced by ‘gentle’ bleaches.

“From my perspective, I’m afraid bleach is bleach,” says Tracey Devine-Smith, global ambassador for Affinage. “There are no ‘gentler bleaches’ in my opinion, but gentler developers or gentler approaches to bleaching in general.”

Suzanne Alphonse, Wella Professionals education manager, agrees: “When you have a ‘gentle’ bleach, you have to consider what ingredients are used and what ingredients may have been substituted to make it ‘gentle’.” However, “there is definitely a place for having ‘gentle’ bleaches for those clients that want subtle sun-kissed results instead of the extreme lifting and making hair as white as it can go – this is where the misconceptions around bleach come in.”

But gentler bleaches, bonding additives and high lift alternatives have led to one unforeseen complication: misuse or overuse, resulting in MORE damage to a client’s hair rather than less.

“In my opinion, the many great products available now that help tackle the damaging effects of bleach almost gives licence to be liberal with bleach,” says Tracey. “We are seeing an increase in damage due to younger, less experienced stylists thinking that adding a ‘plex’ product eliminates damage.”

Ceri Cushe, Revlon Professional brand master artist, adds: “Some colourists believe that no matter what the current colour or condition of the hair, that any level of lightening can be achieved without damage, because of the additives that help protect the hair, and it’s simply not true.”

Gentler bleaches, bonding additives, lighteners – does any of it matter, if the education isn’t there?

For Wella Professionals’ Suzanne, a good colourist should be able to work with any bleach and get a good result because “it’s about understanding the product, understanding the hair you’re putting it on and also working with a precise, neat and thoughtful application”.

To be able to do this, education and disseminating information is key.

I don’t think this is about the product, I think this is about application by colourists that don’t have strong colouring foundations and struggle to understand the products and hair they are working on,” states Wella Professionals’ Suzanne. “If bleach is applied over bleach, if the wrong oxidant is used, if the wrong bleach product is used then yes there will be damage. That’s why we’re really focused on making sure colourists are given great colouring fundamentals to really understand the lifting process, but also how to conduct a thorough consultation that not only involves the colourist but the client.”

Kai Wan, owner of P.Kai Hair, has seen his bleaching services grow in-salon as a result of the increase in confidence when using bleach, and this comes down to training. “Education is leading to more colourists taking more care with their choice and strength of peroxide and opting for safer, lower per cent strength and longer development times for more control over the lifting process,” he says.

Jack Howard at Paul Edmonds, adds: “In this very competitive market where clients have super high expectations, application is king and sets you apart. Education and practice are what’s needed for the client and the colourist because if you only need five levels of lift you use a high lift tint, but if you need to breakthrough previously coloured hair or a buttery blonde then you need up to seven, eight or nine levels of lift and you need bleach.”

Then there’s also the matter of educating your clients about bleach. “We need to end this fear of bleach and the only way to do that is to educate our clients, so they understand the lightening process and the commitment that comes with it,” says HX Hair’s Heffy. “The damage is avoidable as long as there’s the integrity of the hair and it’s fundamental to verify this prior to your service being carried out. The hairdresser needs to check the client’s lifestyle, i.e. If they go swimming several times a week, and straighten it every day, they may not be the best candidate for a full head bleach.”

Celebrity hairdresser and associate at Josh Wood Atelier, Jason Hogan, stays away from the word, bleach, completely when talking to clients, using ‘lightener’ instead.

“I think the word bleach has become vilified and immediately conjures up images of brittle, inelastic, candy floss-esque barnets in the minds of clients.

Another thing he makes clear to his colour clients is the importance of aftercare. “Clients are now much more receptive to colour maintenance at home, so those bleached strands are much better off,” he adds.

Hair: HX Hair

Heffy sends colour clients away with an aftercare flier, stating the best shampoo and conditioner for optimum condition and prolonged colour life. “These actions combined really deliver amazing results with no damage involved,” she explains.

While bleach still reigns supreme when it comes to high-lifts and pastels, new innovations and improved education are helping to make the B word seem less scary, for both the colourist and clients.

As Jack Howard says, “It’s the nirvana to have a super gentle, max life pre-lightener” – but something tells us we’re not too far off from achieving this. In the meantime, don’t blame it on the bleach, blame it on a lack of education, and go back to school.