Does Highlighting Your Hair Damage It? Here's One Colorist's Honest Advice

For years, I swore I'd never color my virgin hair and risk damaging my tresses, but after one too many scrolls on Pinterest, I booked myself a balayage appointment, and I've had highlights ever since. If you've ever wondered, "Does highlighting your hair damage it?", you're not the only one with this concern, and to answer questions on all things bleach, I turned to one of my fave hair colorists in the biz for her professional opinion. If you want the scoop, read on for everything you need to know about getting highlights and preventing as much damage as possible.

The Expert

I absolutely drool over the highlights Stephanie Brown, hair colorist at the IGK Salon in Soho, New York, has created for many of her clients, so I knew she'd be the ultimate stylist to talk to when it come to getting real about dye jobs and damage. With celeb glam squads achieving a celebrity-level status of their own via social media, the behind-the-scenes looks at professional hair and makeup they give their followers mean that more and more people are starting to warm up to the idea of taking risks with their appearance, and Brown says the majority of clients coming in for a haircut want some sort of color now, too. Not all highlights are created the same way, though, and not every head of hair is exactly the same, so as Brown explains, the potential for damage depends on how the dye job itself goes down.

The Down Low On Damage

So, plain and simple: Does highlighting hair damage it? The answer is Yes, but in varying degrees of intensity. "Coloring hair will always cause damage; unless it's a gloss. However, the level of damage is determined by the amount of change being done to the hair," Brown explains. "If you’re doing a single process or subtle highlights, the damage will be minimal, and you may not even notice, but if you are going platinum or heavily highlighting your hair, you can feel a lot of damage being done," she says. Why? Bleach essentially removes pigment from the hair shaft, which in turn leaves the follicles super fragile, making strands look dull, dry, and prone to breakage.

How Your Stylist Can Prevent Damage

Spoiler alert, your stylist can't lighten your strands without bleach — but he or she can ensure your dye job is a little more conditioning to balance the harsh chemical out. "I like to add in Uberliss into a lot of my formulas when highlighting," says Brown, referring to the brand's professional-level bond sustainer. "Brands like Uberliss, Olaplex, and Joico all make bond-building treatments that help hair to not get too damaged," she adds, noting that while these brands offer professional-level treatments for stylists, they also make at-home products for clients to use on themselves. In addition to products, Brown also insists that proper technique can help prevent unwanted damage as well. " Always check the foils so they don’t over-process, and try not to overlap when applying bleach," she says. Her top advice to fellow colorists? "Be upfront with your clients and tell them if you know that their hair is going to be damaged," she says, "Some clients come in and want to go really pale and not have any damage, but that’s just not how hair color works, unfortunately." The real talk is very much appreciated, Stephanie!

How You Can Prevent Further Damage At Home

If strands do end up damaged, Brown says it's important to care for them properly to avoid making things worse. "Don’t wash your hair everyday, cut down on heat styling, get a silk pillowcase, and buy a microfiber towel," she advises. "They help dry hair faster — and don’t pull hair when it’s wrapped in it," she insists. The Slip Silk Pillowcase ($85, slip.com) and AQUIS Rapid Dry Hair Turban ($30, aquis.com) are her top recommendations.

Just as a professional treatments in-salon can help strands, using the Olaplex Hair Perfector No. 3 ($28, sephora.com) at home will help hair repair itself even further. Olaplex utilizes a patented bond-building technology with strengthens hair from the inside out, and letting this stuff sink in for about ten minutes before shampooing and conditioning can really work wonders in terms of how hair looks and feels.

Another great option, as favored by Brown, is the Uberliss Original Bond Sustainer ($20, ulta.com), which utilizes nano-emulsion technology, as well as hydrating aloe vera and moisturizing coconut oil.

My post-shower fave for masking color-induced damage and preventing future hair struggles is the Color Wow Kale-Infused Dream Cocktail ($25, colorwowhair.com), and not just because kale is trendy. This heat-activated formula utilizes sea kale, amino acids, and B vitamins, so hair won't just look better after applying — it'll actually be on the road to recovery. Since blow-drying isn't always the friendliest approach to damaged strands, using a strengthening treatment while you dry makes a would-be bad approach ultimately helpful in healing your breakage.

Unite Hair makes some of my all-time favorite products for color-treated hair, and their Unite Hair RE:UNITE Treatment ($36, unitehair.com) is a new launch dedicated to repairing damaged tresses. In addition to the RE:UNITE shampoo and conditioner, which are also great picks for chemically damaged hair, the Treatment mask offers a concentrated formula of protein-based nutrients and antioxidants that helps smooth the hair's cuticle so it looks shiny and healthy.

Another new-to-me fave for damaged hair is the Philip Kingsley Elasticizer Deep-Conditioning Treatment ($28, philipkingsley.com), a cult-favorite that, as the name implies, seeks to restore elasticity to fried, damaged strands. In addition to castor oil, olive oil, and glycerin, the formula contains hydrolyzed elastin, a protein that will help increase hair's elasticity from the inside out and prevent future breakage.

How Soon Is Too Soon To Get Highlights Again?

Say you loved the look of your highlights despite the damage? Chances are you'll want to go back again, and Brown knows this. Still, she insists waiting it out as long as possible will do your strands some good. "If it’s a highlight to the root, because this is usually a little more maintenance, I would say an appointment every eight to 12 weeks is a good time frame," she says, "For an ombré or other grown-out look, three to six to twelve months in between appointments, depending on what looks good." As for who you go to for said appointments, Brown warns clients should be familiar with their colorist's work prior to letting them pile on the bleach. "Look at people's Instagrams to see if you like the work they are doing. This is important because you want to leave with the hair you want; just because someone famous goes to this person, or they have a big following, doesn’t mean you'll like their work," she says, adding, "This will narrow down the chance of you not liking it hand having to have it fixed." So true! Better safe than sorry — and better to leave the salon with a healthy, highlighted head of hair than with damaged strands and drama.