How I got my Hair Colour: Bleaching & Lightening Dark Brown Hair

My journey to achieve my current light-medium blonde hair colour was not a short one, in fact it started over nine months ago and it took me several bleach + toning session to achieve the colour that is now very close to what I originally wanted.

My hair is natural dark brown, it’s thick and very dry, so I had just about everything stacked against me achieving the desired colour. This actually isn’t my first rodeo, as I had some blonde highlights in my teens and back then no one even used a toner one me or told me I have to do a second set of bleaching

so I ended up with very orange looking highlights (which I later dyed over with a red colour, another hair stylist disaster that I ended up covering with a dark brown and stopped colouring for over a decade). Now I took my time to educate myself well about bleaching, toning, what to do to prevent damage, which was my biggest concern, and how to achieve the balayage look I wanted. I’m not one to just jump into doing something reckless so I spent months researching and also testing on individual strands before I did anything, yet I still made some mistakes I wish I knew about before.

I was remarkably stupid to do all of this on my own because, well for one I wanted to, so I can learn the process myself, but also because I still don’t have a lot of trust in hairdressers when it comes to my hair (just experience, I’m sure there are brilliant hairdresser’s out there). Doing it professionally is so expensive and I would feel awful if someone else screwed up my hair and me being, well, me, I’d be afraid to express my dissatisfaction and just paid for it without a word – yes, I’m that kind of a person. I preferred to do my own mistakes this time, however, I strongly discourage you from doing your own experiments, particularly when it comes to bleach, unless you’re 100% sure you can do it. 

There weren’t just these stages, there were actually more, but this shows it well enough. The second picture is when I did my first successful-ish balayage and toned with L’Oreal Preference 8.1, which I wasn’t happy with (compared to the Excellence formula). When I finally lightened my hair to a much lighter colour on the third picture, I had big problems with toning.

I tried it three times: once with Schwarzkopf Blondme Blonde Toning Steel Blue + Sand, second again just with Steel Blue and because none of those cooled it, I went with L’Oreal Excellence 7.1 + 8.1 mix, which left my hair even darker than the 4th picture and completely erased my balayage (I’ll show you somewhere below in the post). I tried to wash off the colour a bit, but let me tell you

those L’Oreal Excellence are not easy to fade quickly. I did a couple of chelating sessions, which did nothing and I could’ve just done a bleach bath, but I decided to keep the colour over the summer. The last picture is that colour after three months, so it washed off to this lovely coppery brown. What you don’t see is 4 centimetres of roots and a very shoddy work on my fringe, which is why it was high time to do another bleaching session.

First step: RESEARCH

If you’re just interested in my process, then skip ahead, this might be long for some, but it actually barely covers everything I’ve learned. I can’t vouch that everything is correct, so I encourage you to do your own research as well. 

This is good bit of information to know even if you’re just buying box colours in any shade. It helps you determine the depth of your hair colour. Knowing this will help you pick the right colour, strength of developer if your using bleach or high lift colours and a toner after bleaching.

Hair generally falls into 10 levels. Like I said this is just how dark the colour is and the scale shows shades with a natural/neutral undertone, but obviously hair also has warm and cool undertones, which here don’t matter, this is just establishing the depth of your colour.

Not all levels are exactly the same at hair companies, but it’s something like this: Level 1 is darkest black (think dyed intense black emo shades), level 2 is natural black, 3 is dark brown, which is my natural shade, 4 medium brown, 5-6 are light brown, depending on the chart you’re looking, 7 is dark blonde, 8 medium blonde, 9 light blonde and 10 is bleached very light blonde.

When you’re picking a box dye, levels tend to be the first number (L’Oreal, Garnier, Subrina Butter, Schwarzkopf Colour Expert) or at some the last (Subrina Charm, Saten, Spectra).

I haven’t managed to unravel the mystery of Schwarzkopf Diadem, Poly Palette or Brilliance system in central Europe, but their Colour Expert follows the same pattern as most with level the first shade and the second two denoting the tone. If you know your hair level

then you know which colours you can pick that will work on you and which are a lighter or darker version of picked shade (for example 7.1 is darkest, 8.1 is a shade lighter, 9.1 even lighter; or 660 is lighter than 500, but with a neutral undertone compared to the warm 660). Among tones, number 1 or a letter A usually indicate an ashy shade

which is information that comes handy when looking for a shade that tones warm yellow, brassy and orange tones (by the way, shades like 7.31 don’t count. Number 3 in this case usually indicates a golden tone, but companies have different tone charts).

How bleach works and understanding the connections with the levels

This might be such an obvious information for most of you, but when hair is lightened it does not follow the natural/neutral part of the level chart, but instead the underlying tones are revealed.

So putting bleach on level 3 hair like mine and letting it reach level 10 the hair goes through transformation into red (levels 3-4), orange (level 5-6), golden (levels 7-8), yellow (level 9) and finally very pale yellow (level 10).

I sometimes hear people say they have “too much of red pigment in the hair” – everyone with hair darker than level 5 has it, it’s not something only a some dark haired people have and it’s revealed when lightening hair (if you want it gone, you either have to lighten your hair use an ashy brown or use a cooling hair mask like Subrina Refresh Cold Brown

which is only a temporary solution, as it washes off). Depending on which level you reach with bleaching, you base your choice of a toner, since a classic purple toner won’t work on hair level higher than 9-10. 

What can you achieve with box colours?

The darker your natural colour is, the less you can do with it without bleach. If you’re one of those lucky people with naturally light blonde up to light brown hair you can get a regular hair colour in the drugstore and you have your lightening + toning done in one easy step.

If you have dark hair, mostly all you can do it stay on the same level or change the tone (based on my experience with my hair), but there is one tiny loophole how to reach light brown without using bleach and that is by using a strong ashy blond dye.

Before going blonde I used L’Oreal’s Excellence 9.1 for the job and it worked out great. You can also use 8.1 and 7.1, the last will give you the most ashy result with no red tones (the darker your hair, the better it is too pick the darkest ashy colour. I should have started with 7.1).

I also heard from one of Subrina user that using their shade 30/3 light special cendre blond works great on dark hair. She used Charm, but their Spectra are even stronger with a 5 level lift (these will get even light brown hair to a very blonde shade when mixed with a 12% developer).

I used 80/8 ice blonde on a strand and was surprised by the lift (stronger than L’Oreal), but it wasn’t toned, while I think the ashy cendre blond has a better chance.

One important thing to know in case you don’t – hair colour doesn’t lighten previously coloured hair. You can only stay on the same level or go darker. If you want to go lighter again, you’ll have to bleach it.

I really wanted to do this right, so focused on salon brands. Bad side is you can only get big packaging, but actually this turned out a big plus at me, since I had to go through more than one bleaching, plus I’ll have to deal with roots.


I picked Schwarzkopf Blondme Bond Enforcing Premium Lightener 9+ because it has a very high feedback, I heard it can lift even the darkest hair to a level 10 in one go (which actually turned out not true for my thick hair) and because it has bond enforcing complex, they explain it’s succinic acid which forms a protective layer around the bonds in the hair and prevents damage. Other bleaches I heard good things about are Schwarzkopf Professional Igora Vario Bond, L’Oreal Quick Blue Powder Bleach and Wella Bondor (Wella is very popular in North America and consequently it’s the brand you hear most about on YouTube, but we have different products here). I got my Blondme products on

There are some box colour bleaches. I only have experience with Schwarzkopf Color Expert L8, which left my hair in nice condition, but it was too weak for me and you have to buy a separate toner because the added tiny satchel of blurple mask is a joke. In some places you can find L9 version and their Blonde line in blue boxes, like shade L1++, which are praised. I heard great things about Garnier Olia bleach, but we don’t have it here.

Picking the right percentage or volume developer

There are the basic four types of developers:

– 3% or 10 vol. – the most gentle developer, pretty much causes no damage, but also doesn’t lift much or not at all, instead it just deposits the colour. Best for when you are refreshing the colour on your previously dyed part of hair and for mixing with toning shades. 

– 6% or 20 vol. – low lift of only a couple or few shades with bleach. Best used with permanent hair colours when you’re trying to cover grey hair (with those the lift is the usual 1-2 shades).

– 9% – medium lift, used with a hair colour it offers a lift up to three levels depending on how dark your hair is. With bleach it can lighten medium brown hair to pale blond. This is the one most use for mixing with bleach.

– 12% or 40 vol. – this is the strongest developer and some don’t recommend it at all because it can be damaging and especially because it can burn the scalp, but at such a formula as is Blondme, I find it’s not damaging on my hair and I wasn’t applying it on the scalp anyway. This one can lift up to 9 levels with bleach, but I wasn’t able to achieve than on my thick hair. In combination with a colour such as Spectra special blonde shades and I presume Blondme Bond Enforcing Blonde Lifting or Blonde Hi-Lighting colours it can lift up to 5 shades.

When I was ordering Blondme bleach from, they only had a 3% and 6% developer. I took the later which I knew from the start wasn’t going to be ideal and if I could fix one mistake this would be it. However, bleaching my hair gradually also gave me a chance to take greater care of my hair in between my colouring sessions. I later found Notino has a 12% developer, which I then mixed with 6% to achieve varying strengths of lift. By the way, you don’t have to use same brand developer, but it’s good if you do.

Colour Theory and Toning

Here you need the knowledge of the basic colour wheel, so it’s not complicated. For toning the most used shade is violet which counteracts yellow, so levels 9 and 10, but if your hair is brassy a.k.a orange, purple likely won’t cut it, so you need blue and for red you need green.

Purple toners are very easy to come by, they come in form of shampoos (like below mentioned Ice Cream No-Yellow. Keune has one as does L’Oreal), hair masks (Schwarzkopf Blondeme Tone Enhancing, also mentioned below. L’Oreal released its version this year) and proper toners like Wella Color Charm T18 or T10 (North American products, here we have the less praised Color Fresh)

Schwazkopf Blondme Blonde Toning in Ice, Redken Eq toners (which are highly praised and I wanted them, but they are hard to find and expensive) and Subrina Spectra demi-permanent 8/10 Ice Blonde). Blue toners are less common, but you can try Subrina Colour Refresh mask Diamond Blond, Schwarzkopf Blondme Toning in Steel Blue and Wella Color Charm T14 or a darker T35.

In my case I didn’t have luck with toners because my hair had too many different shades from level 10 at the ends, and ranging from 9-7 above.

That’s why I decided to use a permanent hair colour in an ashy shade. L’Oreal and Garnier have the best selection of ashy shades of various levels in my local drugstores, so I went with those, but they are not the only that exist, though when searching online L’Oreal was by far most frequently mentioned.

I was thinking about getting Wella Illumina online, which is what hair dressers use, but it was more expensive. At L’Oreal and Garnier ashy shades are marked with .1, so 9.1, 8.1 and 7.1 and I think their 6.1 was renamed to 6.00. *edit from september 2020: Revlon’s Colorsilk 70 Medium Ash Blonde did an admirable job of toning and it’s ammonia free. It’s comparable to L’Oreal’s 8.1.

Balayage and highlighting techniques

I have spent a lot of time researching how to do balayage on YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram, studying how to do the sections. I made a mistake the first time because I missed the front bottom part of my fringe bits, so when I put my hair up, it was still dark brown. This was one of my biggest mistakes because you mainly see the front bits. I decided to use a highlighting foil technique on those, so I do that part differently than the rest.

My technique is mostly like this video here and I even used such a brush, but not all is the same, for one I left no strands out and I saturated the ends on both sides. Most do the front part completely differently, more in a criss-cross way, but I prefer it this way.

Before any colouring I tested on strands to determine how long does it take for my hair to lighten to level 10 or if it even does in one go. This way I had a reference how much time you I and picked the right developer.

I also tested toning products before doing anything. I actually have quite a stash of hair colouring products from Subrina, but I had boxes of L’Oreal colours in stock and one Schwarzkopf shadeI before I completely understood toning.

L’Oreal Excellence 8.1 and 9.1 turned out to be the best options for my hair colour, but previouslyI have used 8.1 and it didn’t work because my hair was still too dark in most places. The one time I didn’t test beforehand, I’ve used L’Oreal Excellence 7.1 mixed with 8.1 which turned my hair light brown

but that time my mistake was that I left them on for too long because bleached hair picks up pigment in minutes. To be fair, it wasn’t a total mistake because it at least toned well, but I could have done the same type of mix I’ve done in my last attempt, so using different colours on sections of my hair because the ends were light enough to be toned with a lighter shade.

In my previous attempts I also tried Schwarzkopf Steel Blue and Sand, both failed to properly tone my hair, but again at that time my hair was possibly too dark, but still I expected Steel blue to impress me more – I was sure it will work on hair such at below.

Toning with L’Oreal Excellence 7.1 + 8.1 (50:50). It was my last resort because I already tried toning twice with Schwarzkopf toners. It ended up way darker than I thought, but at least I learned to not leave the colour on for long and it was the reason why I decided on the a lot more complex toning I mention below.


One thing I kept hearing when researching bleaching was get Olaplex. N.1 is a yellow liquid that is added to bleach in the salons and n.2 is a aftercare treatment, both are outrageously expensive, but you can get them in some places online. N.3 is something more affordable and made for use at home.

I said many times that I don’t get magical results from N.3, but it helps rebuild the bonds that are ruined at bleaching and I kind of blindly trust it must be working something, since my hair is not falling apart after all its been through. I recently got N.6 and it’s amazing.

I also invested in proteins. Joico K-Pack duo of Reconstructor and Hydrator have managed to restore my hair to some level of normalcy after it became coarse and wasn’t absorbing moisturising care anymore, so I rate them higher than Olaplex n.3, but I don’t consider them the same type of product.

One of the most important parts of my bleaching routine was definitely using coconut oil. It doesn’t affect the colouring process, it just protect the hair was drying out too much and damage. 

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