What You Need to Know Before Highlighting Black Hair

You can do way more with black hair than you think.

close up of young Asian woman with black hair and bangs
Photo: Daniel C Sims/Getty Images

It doesn't have to be summer to wistfully pine for sun-kissed highlights. But for those of us whose natural hues run more like Morticia Adams than Bella Hadid, lightening our jet-black hair in a way that isn't harsh may seem impossible — yet that notion couldn't be further from the truth.

"The biggest misconception I hate is the idea that black hair is boring," says celebrity hairstylist Julius Michael, who counts several raven-haired Bravo Housewives as clients. "Black hair is powerful, sexy, and on the right skin tone, can take years off!"

Contrary to popular belief, a dark base can look just as amazing with highlights as blonde or brunette hair. But to get there, it's all about managing your expectations before taking the dive to make sure you nail that ever-elusive harmony between skin tone, base color, and highlight shade. To find out more, we asked three master colorists to share everything they wished their clients with black hair knew before hopping on board the highlight train.

Preparation Is Key

Taking a few proactive steps to whip your hair into shape ahead of your appointment will pay dividends in both shine and vibrancy.

"About a week before your highlighting appointment, it's good to get rid of buildup with a clarifying shampoo like Biolage Clean Reset, which will deep clean, remove buildup without stripping natural oils," says Matrix celebrity colorist George Papanikolas, who also recommends a light trim to get rid of those dead, dry ends before your color treatment, so you get the most bang for your buck.

And according to Rita Hazan, the stylist responsible for Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey's hair color, there is no such thing as too much conditioning to strengthen hair in preparation for the dye. "Just condition, condition, condition!" she says, recommending deep hydrating masks.

Decide On a Look Before You Get Started

Let's be real: jet-black hair has quite the range, and as Michael notes, you first have to decide if you want a look, or a look.

"If your hair is black or dyed black, it is a very dramatic color and can be very rock and roll," explains Hazan. "I would pick one or two thick pieces and lighten it as much as I could depending on the haircut and style to give it an edge."

If subtle, warm tones are what you're after, that's great too! Whatever highlight style you choose, keep in mind that it will always appear a little stronger than our fair-haired friends.

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Find the Right Highlight Shades for You

"The best tones on black hair tend to be caramels and lighter browns," explains Papanikolas. And depending on your skin tone, the color can be adjusted to go warmer or cooler to find the most flattering hue for you. But he warns against going any lighter than four levels from your base color, as it can easily veer into a dramatic style that "can look harsh and create too much contrast," he warns.

To keep hair healthy and vibrant, Hazan recommends staying away from anything within the very light to dark blonde neighborhood altogether to reduce the risk of breakage, as "you can't just go from black to blonde in one shot," she says. "It's a very long and possibly damaging process."

Your best move, according to Papanikolas, is to leave your dark tones as the focus and aim for lighter, creamy highlights to add dimension and glow. "I love to treat highlights on black hair as an accent to frame the face, the natural part, and the ends," he shares.

And while softer, natural-looking highlights tend to bring out the red and orange undertones found in most black hair, these brassy shades are easy to neutralize with an ash-based toner.

Remember, Black Hair Does Have Limits

"Remember that black is a tricky base color to give any highlights," says Michael. But if a total transformation is what you want, Michael suggests a cautious, baby steps approach over several sessions.

Losing vibrancy is another challenge with adding highlights to dark tones. "Black hair reflects the light best, and over time, you will lose some of that gorgeous shine," explains the stylist.

However, one workaround is to maintain a strict maintenance schedule. "Glosses keep the color fresh, and you can do these treatments at home, two to three times a week," says Hazan.

How Do I Keep My Highlights Looking Fresh?

As with all color-treated hair, avoid daily washes (but really, dry shampoo is definitely your friend here), and use color-preserving products, like the acid-based shampoo Matrix Total Results Keep Me Vivid to help seal the cuticle and preserve the delicate toner molecules. You should also use a deep conditioner formulated to neutralize red tones, which will work double-time to maintain shine.

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