This Month Kim tells you how to help clients step into the light by adding golden highlights to dark hair.

It happens to all colorists, eventually: the appearance of the adventurous client who plunks down in your chair and announces that she has always dreamed of spicing up her dark locks with brilliant blond highlights. Her dream, maybe—but your nightmare.

 Kim Vo
Kim Vo

Taking dark hair into the realm of blond highlights is a complex process. Trust me: I've gone through most phases of it with my mother, an Asian woman whose hair is so intensely brown it's just this side of black. Her desire to lighten things up a bit used to fill me with dread, but a little experimenting (moms are great for that) led me to a workable solution.

Eva Longoria
Eva Longoria

The first thing you need to do is clarify what your intrepid brunette client really wants. After all, "highlights" do not necessarily translate to "blond." In their truest form, highlights are a brightened version of each individual's own shade of brown, added to increase the hair's depth and dimension. You can warm dark brown hair with chestnut highlights or enliven medium brown with shades of caramel and toasted pecan.


But let's say your client wants to take it to the next level—to step out of the safety zone and into the paint box, bent on a color palette of gold on dark brown. While this may seem like a major challenge, there's a virtually foolproof way for you to deliver the desired effect.

The multi-step process begins with the paint swatches on this page. Following the formulas listed in the adjacent chart, section off and bleach the areas you wish to highlight. As you witness the lightening process, try not to panic. It's necessary to move through the reds and oranges to get to the caramels and golds you seek, so keep in mind that the orange-sherbet shade you might see along the way is merely temporary.

Once you have lifted the highlighted areas to the corresponding swatch color, rinse out the bleach and apply a glaze of ammonia-free color all over the hair, choosing the appropriate shade from the chart. Allow the glaze to sit on the hair for 10 minutes, then rinse. If the highlights are too light after that time, re-apply the glaze for an additional 10 minutes.

I suggest you progress in baby steps, starting with just a few highlights until you're comfortable with the process. If you can get past the fear—and if you can keep your clients from looking in the mirror when you peer under the foils to check the ghastly progression of color—you'll both be pleased with the stunning, dramatic results.

E-mail Kim Vo at [email protected]