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How to Use Hair Lightener for Sun-Kissed Highlights Without Bleach

Learn how to DIY a hair-lightening mist too

What’s old is new again — it’s true when it comes to fashion and once in a while, beauty products too. You might remember Sun-In from its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s — well, spray-in hair lighteners have made a comeback! These hair lighteners have been going viral on TikTok for good reason, but before you try it, it’s important to learn how to use hair lightener safely and effectively.

If you’re a candidate for this product (and we’ll get more into that below), it could be a quick, easy way to add highlights to hair in the warmer and sunnier months. Here, we talked to top pros to learn more about what hair lightener is, how to use it, a step-by-step how-to to DIY your own hair lightener at home, plus some ready-made sprays that help you achieve the brighter, highlighted hair of your dreams.

Related: The Secret to High Volume ‘Summer Hair’ All Year Long: Sea Salt Spray

What is hair lightener?

“An over-the-counter hair lightener, such as Sun-In, is designed to lighten hair color without the need for professional salon treatments,” says Rita Hazan, celebrity colorist and founder of Rita Hazan Salon. “It usually comes in the form of a spray, or gel, and contains ingredients like hydrogen peroxide or lemon juice, which help to brighten strands when activated by sunlight or even heating tools.” In other words, you can use Sun-In with your blow dryer to lighten your hair. 

blonde hair holding lemons for hair lightener
Anetlanda / Getty

Dana Ionato, colorist at Sally Hershberger NOMAD, notes that a spray-on hair lightener that you buy can only lift your hair two levels. “If your natural hair color isn’t at least a dark blonde, it’ll turn orange,” she cautions. The product brings the lightening of your hair to a place where it doesn’t complete the process, she says. “It doesn’t finish the service — you need to use a gloss afterward,” says Ionato.  In other words, if you don’t want so much warmth in hair that this product creates, you can neutralize the color with this gloss, she says. She recommends Kristen Ess Signature Hair Gloss.

The benefits of hair lightener

At-home hair lightening products are great for people who want to practice with brightening up hair, says Ionato. “It’s safe because it doesn’t have a high-volume developer in it,” she explains. “At the end of the day, it can’t ruin your hair — it won’t cause it to break off.” It lifts the hair without closing the cuticle (instead, it leaves the cuticle open).

Also, hair lighteners are very convenient, come at an affordable price and you can control how much lightener you use with each application, explains Hazan. “When applied, these can often look very natural and blend seamlessly into your hair color. And you don’t have to commit, most temporary hair lighteners will fade with time.”

Who should use hair lightener?

Woman with blonde hair who brightened her strands after learning how to use hair lightener
Ada Summer/Getty

As mentioned above, it’s great for those who have blonde hair and just want to get their hair a little lighter, say, on vacation, notes Ionato. Dark blondes are the darkest shade who should use this product, she adds. For brunettes, you’ll just get warm highlights, though not in the shade you may want (i.e., it’ll skew more orange/red than blonde).

Hair lighteners are good for anyone who could use a refresh or is looking to brighten their highlights without having to visit a salon, adds Hazan. “They can be used with various hair types, but it’s important to consider factors like hair health and previous treatments before applying a hair lightener. Overall, hair lighteners are ideal for anyone looking to achieve a brightened, refreshed, highlighted look.”

Related: Purple Shampoo Revives Faded Hair Color So It Looks Like You Just Left the Salon

What to keep in mind when using a hair lightener

When using a hair lightening product, Hazan says to be mindful that the outcome may not always create a result in the way you’d like. “That said, consult with your salon about the best practices for maintaining shiny, bright roots.”

And when using hair lightener, always apply it on damp hair, says Ionato. That’ll ensure it’s not as intense as it works through your hair. Also, Ionato advises that you start at the bottom of your hair and work your way up for best results. Roots lift the most because of your scalp’s heat, she says. To help, you’ll want to divide your hair in half from the ears up and clip up the top half, says Ionato. Start slowly, applying it on the bottom — that’ll take longer than the top. If you see your hair going papaya orange, rinse it out,” she advises. She also recommends getting two bottles just in case you run out with more hair to lighten — especially if your hair is on the long or thick side.

How to DIY a hair lightening spray

DIY hair lightener lemon spray
Jamie Grill/Getty

Ionato says you can use lemon juice diluted with water in a spray bottle and then go sit in the sun. With this formula, it won’t work with a hair dryer, just with the sun.

What you’ll need:

  • One or two lemons, depending on your hair length
  • Spray bottle
  • Water
  • Deep conditioner
  • Comb or brush
  • Clip (optional, for long hair)
  • Towel

How to use a DIY hair lightening spray

Step 1: Do a patch test. Before applying to your entire head, conduct a patch test on a small hidden strand of hair behind your ear. Apply some lemon juice, wait 10 minutes, then rinse. Check for any irritation or breakage. If you experience any discomfort, discontinue use.

Step 2: Dilute the juice. Pure lemon juice is too harsh to use directly on your hair, so mix equal parts lemon juice and water in the spray bottle. Shake to combine.

Step 3: Protect your clothes. Lemon juice can stain, so wear an old T-shirt or drape a towel over your shoulders.

Step 4: Prepare your hair. Work on damp, detangled hair. Brushing it beforehand helps distribute the solution evenly.

Step 5: Apply the spray. Spray the diluted lemon juice mixture generously onto your hair sections, focusing on areas you want to lighten. You can clip your hair up for easier application.

Step 6: Sun exposure. For a stronger lightening effect, sit in sunlight for 30-60 minutes. (Be sure to apply sunscreen before hand!). It works because the sun activates the lemon juice’s lightening properties.

Step 7: Rinse thoroughly. After the desired lightening is achieved, or after 60 minutes maximum, rinse your hair thoroughly with cool water.

Step 8: Wash and deep condition with your favorite hair mask. Lemon juice can be drying to your strands, so you’ll always want to follow up your shampoo with a deep conditioner in order to replenish moisture and prevent damage. Then, you’ll want to deep condition your hair regularly to maintain moisture and prevent any breakage from occurring. One we like is amika Soulfood Nourishing Hair Mask.

For more helpful tips on using a hair lightener spray, watch the below video from @CaelaCook on YouTube.

Related: These TikTok-Approved Hair Masks Are the Secret to Lush, Shiny Strands — DIY at Home for Pennies!

The best hair lightening products

For experts’ favorite hair lightening products to get a brighter ‘do, keep reading.

Sun-In Lemon Fresh Hair Lightener

Sun-In Lemon Fresh Hair Lightener

This is the bleach-lightener of yore that’s recently gone viral again! It boasts a formula made with lemon juice and chamomile for subtle blonde highlights, and it includes soothing calendula extract to help soften and condition your hair.

Sun Bum Blonde Hair Lightener
Sun Bum

Sun Bum Blonde Hair Lightener

Hazan says this lightener is a great affordable option and the results are amazing. “The formula helps to replenish and nourish the strands while providing a gradual lighten to your hair,” she says. “It has a blend of lemon to illuminate highlights, using a natural blend of ingredients while protecting from UVs.”

Oribe Sun Lightening Hair Mist

Oribe Sun Lightening Hair Mist

Have colored hair? Then you’ll want to try this lightening mist that works to gradually lighten and brighten color-treated or highlighted blonde hues while providing lightweight hydration.

Hally Hair Lighten Up

Hally Hair Lighten Up

Available in two versions, one for blonde/light brown hair and one for brunettes/dark brown hair, this lightener is a spray-on formula that works to gradually lighten hair two to three shades in the sun or at home with your blow dryer.

For more hair tips and tricks, click through these stories:

Hyaluronic Acid Makes Hair Healthy, Shiny and Youthful — Here’s How to Use It

Gray Blending Works Wonders for Women Over 50 to Conceal Grays Without the Need for Touchups

Hair Pros Share How to Air Dry Hair the Right Way So Strands Look Thick and Stay Healthy

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