Hair-Lightening Sprays May Not Be As Harmless As You Thought

With the emergence of summer comes the craving for a bright, sun-kissed glow. One of the easiest ways to fall in line with the season is to opt for a new hair color, and it's natural to want to go lighter for the warm weather. That being said, many people are returning to a nostalgic form of lightening that doesn't require a trip to the salon. Hair-lightening sprays have been around for ages, but they're growing in popularity again as people look for an easy way to brighten their locks. Because they can be easily purchased and used at home, these sprays are often considered to be relatively harmless lightening products. However, there's more to hair-lightening sprays than meets the eye, and one look at the ingredients list will suggest why.

"Hair is so fragile and delicate, so like anything else that looks to alter the hair, you need to be careful with products that lighten your hair," celebrity hairstylist Andrew Fitzsimons explained to Well+Good. Fitzsimons went on to note that many of these sprays can cause weakening and breakage as they compromise the structure of your hair. However, this isn't the only damage that can be done.

What is hair-lightening spray and how does it work?

Understanding what hair-lightening spray is and how it affects your tresses can give you a better idea of what to expect. Many of these sprays have hydrogen peroxide as their active ingredient, which can do just as much damage to your hair as bleach. Worst of all, they also give you little control over the lightening process. This means that what starts out as an earnest attempt to brighten your locks can end up looking like an off-colored mess. "The chemicals used to lighten tend to turn darker hair tones more orange," celebrity hairstylist Andrew Fitzsimons told Well+Good.

Hair-lightening sprays work with the color that is already in your tresses. The chemicals in the sprays lighten these pigments and allow light to shine through your hair more easily, per Curl Centric. It's this process that makes your locks look brighter and shinier in the summer sun. While many formulas have hydrogen peroxide in them, this isn't true of all sprays — some contain natural ingredients, such as lemon juice and chamomile, which can lighten the tone of your hair in sunlight over time. Many people prefer to use hair-lightening sprays with these types of ingredients for more natural-looking highlights. But natural ingredients don't mean "zero damage" — nor that they will necessarily brighten your hair the way you want.

Can hair-lightening spray brighten up your tresses?

If you're looking for lighter tresses to brighten the appearance of your hair, you might have some luck with a hair-lightening spray. The ingredients included in the formulas of these products are specifically designed to interact with the pigment in your hair and the sun to create a brightening effect. Whether the spray you're using has hydrogen peroxide as a primary ingredient or citric acid, the effect on your tresses will be similar. As these ingredients alter the pigment in your locks, you can expect to see some lightening. That being said, the end result may still not be what you predict, especially if you're a brunette.

Those who have lighter tresses tend to have less pigment — sometimes referred to as melanin — within their strands. This means that when hair-lightening sprays are applied, they have less work to do compared to when they're used on darker locks. "Because light hair has the least melanin, these sprays work best at breaking down the melanin in blondes or light brunettes," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Noreen Galaria told Refinery29. Dark brunettes who do see results when using these sprays often need to let it set for longer for a noticeable change.

How much damage can hair-lightening sprays cause?

The claim that hair-lightening sprays do less damage than bleach is not entirely false, especially if a spray doesn't have hydrogen peroxide as an ingredient. By design, bleach is meant to eliminate all color with its active ingredients — including hydrogen peroxide — which ultimately damages the hair. During hair bleaching, natural oils are stripped from your tresses, resulting in brittleness and dryness. A lightening spray consisting of only natural ingredients may alter the hair's pigments with the help of the sun, rather than eliminating it completely. However, this doesn't mean that it leaves your tresses unscathed, and your scalp may be at risk as well.

"These ingredients cause a permanent chemical reaction to take place inside your hair," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Noreen Galaria told Refinery29. "The color has actually been lifted out, and over time the hair will look brassier or more orange." Dr. Galaria also noted that the scalp can be chemically burned by hair-lightening spray ingredients as well. In severe instances, you run the risk of hyperpigmentation and blistering. At the end of the day, you may be better off seeing a professional colorist to safely achieve the tone you desire.

Why you shouldn't opt for hair bleach instead

If you want to dramatically lighten your locks, you might already be reaching for the bleach after hearing about the time and effort involved in using hair-lightening spray. However, neither option is truly healthy for your tresses. When hydrogen peroxide is involved in the lightening process, your hair is at risk of drying out and becoming prone to breakage; bleach is typically considered even harsher on hair than hair-lightening sprays. This is because it is designed to enter your strands in order to weaken the bonds of pigments, as explained by Curl Centric. The end result is a lighter tone once you wash out the pigments, but also damaged hair — or worse: It's not unheard of for bleaching to cause everything from chemical burns to hair loss.

It's rare for hair-lightening sprays to contain bleach, but to reduce the risk of damage, it's best to opt for a formula that says it's entirely free of peroxide. Using a spray that primarily consists of peroxide and no color can heighten the chances of ending up with a brassy or orange tone. "Without a color agent mixed in, the hair is likely just being opened and exposed to damage," Matrix brand ambassador Rachel Bodt explained to by L'Oreal.

How to repair hair damaged by lightening

If you've already tried a hair-lightening spray and you're noticing damage, it's best to stop using the product as soon as possible. While you won't be able to repair broken-down strands, you can still begin to care for your hair to encourage healthier regrowth.

If you notice that your tresses feel dry despite your best efforts to rehydrate them, your cuticles — which help seal in moisture — could be damaged. In more severe cases, you might notice split ends, which indicate that the cuticles are completely damaged. Unfortunately, this hair can't be salvaged, and regrowth is the only option. However, you can still begin to treat your locks more carefully and set yourself up for beautiful hair in the future. One way to do so is to start using conditioners — the type you use in the shower and rinse out as well as the kind that you leave in after your hair has dried. Not only can conditioner provide your strands with protection, but it can also make it easier to comb and detangle, preventing further breakage.

Other ways you can begin to rehab your hair include applying topical hair vitamins and serums to help strengthen your strands.

Your stylist can help you avoid lasting hair damage

If you're interested in lightening your hair without running the risk of damage, your best bet is to book an appointment at your salon. Not only will this help you ensure you get the color you want, but you can also rest assured that having a professional on hand throughout the process is better for your hair. Lightening your tresses has the potential to cause irreversible damage, which an expert can help you avoid by gradually lifting the pigment from your strands.

While there are several hair-lightening sprays, box bleaches, and dyes on the market, they can be challenging to use for even the most seasoned at-home colorist. It's also worth noting that even if you find a lightening product with natural ingredients, it might take some time to see a change in your hair color — especially if you're starting off as a brunette. By reaching out to your stylist, you can get insight into the best possible way to get the lighter tone you want without the lasting damage, so give the DIY sprays a miss and let the pros handle your sun-kissed summer look.