Why do I need to use bleach to get highlights? What is a toner?

It sometimes can be a shock watching hair color process  whether changing an all over color or toning highlights. Usually when someone wants their hair many shades lighter than their current hair color, the stylist uses bleach to lift their natural hair color or take out any box color (aka. artificial pigment) out of the hair.  Let’s take a step back, and look at the reasoning behind using bleach and what a toner is.

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Do you remember art class  when you may have learned about the color wheel. If not, no worries, we will skim the surface. For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to touch on the tertiary colors. To make the color brown, you need a combination of primary and secondary colors ( primary colors- yellow, red , blue)(secondary colors- green, violet, orange); all these colors are either warm or cool. Note, all the cool colors are opposite of the wheel from the warm colors.

Bleach is a chemical used to remove all the cool colors first from black hair to dark blonde hair, aka. ashy color (blue, green and violets) . What’s left are the warm colors (red, orange, and yellow), also called the underline pigments. An accumulation of cool colors make the hair darker, so some of the cool (ashy) colors need to be removed to lighten up the hair. By doing so  yellow, orange OR red are exposed (or some variation of the colors). Therefore, another hair color solution is put back on the hair to counteract or complement (aka. tone) those colors. Here are some examples below:



Ashy Blonde Highlights
Ashy Blonde Highlights

     Jane’s hair was bleached out to a yellow color, and she wants a more ashy hairstyle, then she would counteract (cancel out) the yellow with an ashy toner (ex. purple, opposite of the wheel from yellow).





Warm Brown Highlights
Warm Brown Highlights


  If Julia bleached her hair to an orange color, and she wanted a warm brown, she would complement  the orange with a neutral brown color, she uses a toner that does not cancel out the orange.


A toner is hair color, which adds pigments (hair color molecules) back in the hair. It can be a semi-permanent  or a demi-permanent hair color that is more gentle on the hair than permanent hair color. Permanent hair color usually has a swelling agent (a chemical to swell the hair), like ammonia or MEA, for the color molecules to penetrate in the hair.  Semi and demi -permanent solution does not usually have this swelling agent. Less swelling means less damage on the hair. Toners are meant to stain the outside of the hair strand. Toners can fade between 4-12 weeks, more or less, depending on the porosity of the hair, hair care products and how often the hair is washed. When the toner washes out, you will be left with seeing the underline pigment again (red, orange, or yellow).

This is a lot of information to absorb, but this is just a long explanation to the process of coloring hair with bleach and a toner. It sounds complicated, but rest assured, leave it to your stylist to do all the formulating!  Cheers to a new hairdo!

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