Sally Underwood
Updated on December 29, 2023

Whether our hair is naturally light, or even if it’s darker brown or black, summer is often a time when our natural shade alters subtly, thanks to the sun’s rays. The results can mean anything from slightly lighter roots and tips to sun-kissed highlights.

But what can we do to replicate the results without jetting off on vacation every few weeks or resorting to bleach? Read on to try some proven natural ways to lighten your hair at home.

The Basics of the Lightening Process

First up, to find out how to lighten your hair effectively (and to avoid any potential coloring mishaps), it’s important to understand how hair color works. Our natural hair shade is determined by two types of melanin (the same chemical that helps determine our skin and eye color) in our hair shaft. The first type, eumelanin, helps make up the black or dark brown colors in our hair, while the second, pheomelanin, is responsible for golden and red shades. Gray or white hair types are the result of an absence of either melanin.

Lightening our hair involves opening up the hair shaft and allowing bleach to remove the natural color that’s in there. This generally means that to achieve lighter hair, we need certain chemicals (think hydrogen peroxide).

So, how does hair end up lightening in the summer without any chemical help? Well, in much the same way that UV rays can fade our clothes/towels/outdoor furniture, it can also have a lightening effect on your hair (called photobleaching). Meanwhile, sea salt and chlorine can also have a similar effect. The downside is that frequent exposure to the sun can not only lighten your hair naturally, but also leave it dry and brittle, so this might be a cost too high to pay. Especially when you can easily find a safer way to lighten your locks.

How to Lighten Your Hair Without Bleach

Thankfully, you can get lighter hair without bleach or damaging UV rays; all it takes is just to look for ingredients that have a similar effect on melanin. Even more, an effective hair lightener might be already within your immediate reach.

1. Honey and Cinnamon

Cinnamon is possibly the most effective natural hair lightener and it works great with honey, which naturally contains low levels of hydrogen peroxide and has a host of benefits for hair (this is why honey hair masks are so popular). Thus, used properly, this combo can actually help lighten, soften and condition your hair.

To make your own honey and cinnamon mask, mix 2 tablespoons of organic raw honey, one tablespoon of cinnamon, and one tablespoon of olive oil for extra hydration. If the mixture tends to be too thick, add a bit of distilled water or conditioner. Mixing in white vinegar (the same amount and honey) is also a popular choice, which makes the solution even a more powerful lightener.

Let it sit for about an hour for the ingredients to fully mix (cinnamon needs some time to fully activate hydrogen peroxide in raw honey). Then, apply it to damp hair for a few hours or, better yet, overnight. A dramatic change in brown hair can be achieved through about 10 or more uses.

2. Chamomile

Chamomile contains an enzyme — quercetin — that inhibits melanin production, making this the perfect choice for those who want to lighten darker hair over time or keep naturally blonde hair on the bright side. Overall, lightening hair with chamomile tea rinse is rather a long-term solution than a quick fix and it may be a bit drying to the hair, too.

To make your own natural lightener, brew several bags of chamomile tea in hot water, let it cool, and transfer to a spray bottle. Spritz it thoroughly through your hair and leave it on till your hair dries. Letting hair air dry in the sun will help chamomile tea lighten your hair faster. Then, wash and condition as normal.

3. Lemon Juice

The citric acid in lemon juice works in a similar way to bleach — by opening up the hair shaft and neutralizing the natural pigment. It isn’t a particularly strong solution, so it will work best on hair that is already blonde or very light brown. You should not underestimate its power, though! Once you strip your hair color with lemon juice and the result is uneven, you won’t be able to get it back naturally, which makes this method possibly one of the most notorious ways to lighten hair from home.

To use, mix equal parts of lemon juice and distilled water in a spray bottle, apply onto your hair, and sit in the sun for one to two hours. Then rinse your hair to wash it all out. Remember that this option can be pretty drying, so make sure to step up the hair masks afterward.

4. Vitamin C

How to Lighten Hair with Vitamin C

Freepik/ @ArthurHidden

The citric acid that works pretty much like hydrogen peroxide can be also found in Vitamin C tablets – another common product used to lighten hair at home. To use, mix 8 to 10 smashed Vitamin C tablets with one cup of water for a lightening rinse or with your shampoo (take the amount you normally need to shampoo your hair once). The mixture can both lighten your hair and remove the mineral build-up.

5. Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is working in a similar way to lemon juice: opens the hair cuticle slightly, allowing the hair’s color to escape when exposed to heat or sunlight. Mix it with equal parts of distilled water or chamomile tea and, using a spray bottle, spritz through the lengths. Going out in the sun will facilitate the lightning process. In addition to lifting your hair color, apple cider vinegar rinse will gently clarify and condition your hair.

6. Sea Salt

Remember us talking about how sea salt and sun make our locks lighter in summer? Well, you can recreate the trick by preparing a sea salt mixture (regular table salt will do, too), spraying your locks, and staying at least 60 minutes outside in the sun. Then rinse your hair or skip the rinse for the beachy texture a sea salt spray gives. Follow up with a conditioner and apply oil to the hair ends not to dry out your tresses.

7. Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide

Using Baking Soda for Hair Lightening

Freepik / @freepik

A mixture of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda is an effective DIY lightening method. While you actually use hair bleach here, you only need one teaspoon of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and mix it with two teaspoons of aluminum-free baking soda.

To use, prepare a paste, apply to dry hair and leave the mixture in for up to an hour. Then, rinse and use a good-quality conditioner. The use of baking soda for hair care has been promoted by the no-poo method, and, even if you think lighter hair first, the mask is believed to promote hair health and shine too.

Hair Lightening Products

Of course, if you want to skip the DIY steps, there are also plenty of ready-to-use products to help take hair from normal to sun-kissed. If you have dark hair, a chamomile treatment like John Frieda’s Go Blonder Hair Lightening Spray will be the best for lightening hair naturally. For already naturally light hair shades, Sun Bum’s Blonde Formula Hair Lightener can lift blonde even lighter.

This tutorial shows various application techniques:

Shampoos to Lighten Hair Naturally

Once your hair is as light as you want it, keep orangey or brassy tones at bay with a specific toning product. Working on the same principle as that color wheel we all learned about in elementary school (and see so much of on Instagram and YouTube at the moment), toning shampoos use the ‘complementary’ (opposite) color to yellow and orange in the color wheel to neutralize those pesky brassy tones. Given that the opposite shade of orange is blue, and the opposite color to yellow is purple, toning products normally come in a shade somewhere in the dark blue/indigo/lilac shade range.

There are plenty of great options on offer, but to pick one that will give you your brightest blonde ever, take a look at your current hair color. Are the colors you would like to tone down more orange or more butter yellow?

Whichever you go for, make sure to use your toning shampoo no more than every three washes because the purple or blue pigments can build up in hair, eventually leading to a muddy or dull appearance. If you’ve already gotten to that point, though, don’t stress; a couple of washes with a normal shampoo will help fade out the unwanted tones.

How to Get Natural Highlights

Highlights are pretty much universally flattering, adding a feel of dimension and body to hair, as well as highlighting those areas you want to draw the most attention to (think, around the eyes and tops of cheekbones). But, how do you replicate those salon-like highlights without a trip to the colorist?

Luckily, you can use all of the natural hair lighteners mentioned above, just in a more focused way to achieve that highlighted effect. So, instead of applying a lightening product over the whole head, use a toothbrush to apply smaller amounts of product to targeted areas you’d like to be blonder.

Words of Caution

The shade you achieve through at-home lightening will depend quite a lot on any other permanent and semi-permanent hair colors you already had in your hair. The results you get on color-treated and natural, regrown sections of hair may be different, resulting in an awkward color oops moment. So, just go slow and don’t be afraid to go to a professional colorist, if you have any doubt.

Also, mind that it is still possible to have an allergic reaction even when using natural hair lighteners. To lighten hair as safely as possible, always do a patch test at least 24 hours before using a product or a DIY treatment in your hair. Equally important is to use products in your hair for a minimum amount of time first to see how your strands react before letting them sit in your hair for longer.

Featured Image via Instagram