There are two significant periods in my life: before bleach, and after bleach. The former lasted till sometime in mid-2015, and the latter, hopefully, will prevail for the rest of my life. I am a Blonderexic; a Bleach-oholic.
Blonderexia, and its cousin Bleach-oholism, are serious conditions. Symptoms typically involve compulsively checking hair against anything in your desired shade; sending your colourist constant picture updates of your roots; impatiently counting down the weeks until the next bleach fix, and hoarding every colour-enhancing product you come across.
Bleaching has become a sophisticated art form. Gone are the disastrous DIY days of the ’80s punks and ’90s grunge kids. Instead, we’re heading to the professionals who – thanks to new colour technologies and specialist techniques – are able to produce glossy, healthy-looking tresses in shades from crisp platinum to the kind of rainbow pastels My Little Pony would be proud of.
It’s an It girl thing
The aptly-named Bleach, a specialist London-based salon, for example, is the go-to place for the Jaggers, Pixie Geldof, Rita Ora and pretty much every other blonde It girl, while Californian Youtube hair guru Guy Tang’s airbrushed unicorn mane creations have earned him 1.4 million Instagram followers.
And now, the epidemic is sweeping across Asia: from models like Fernanda Ly and Soo Joo Park to social media stars like Irene Kim and Amy Pham; from local tastemakers (cue socialite Celina Lin and radio DJ Rosalyn Lee aka @heyrozz) to a number of fellow fashion and beauty writers and editors.
But bleaching naturally black hair – essentially stripping it of all its pigment – is one of the most damaging things you can do to your locks. The cuticles in the hair shaft are lifted to allow the bleach to penetrate within the keratin (the protein our hair is made up of) and oxidise the melanin molecules that determine our hair colour. The peroxide also breaks down the disulfide bonds that form hair’s structure (responsible for whether it’s curly or straight). This leaves the strands porous and brittle, hence the much-feared straw-like, crunchy texture that turns into mush when wet.
Angeline Tan, creative director of FDP Prestige Hair Care, who has been creating blonde and balayage looks for many a Singapore media personality (from DJ and host Tabitha Nauser to race driver Claire Jedrek) mixes her own blend of pre-lightener with pineapple extracts for a gentler approach. Shawn Chia, associate salon director at Chez Vous and the man behind my own silver mane, is able to leave less than a millimetre gap between the scalp and the roots, avoiding hours of painful bleach-on-skin contact.
The launch of Olaplex
Expert techniques aside, advancements in chemical processing mean there’s never been a better time to take the plunge. Most conventional damage repair treatments infuse strands with moisture and protein, and seal the cuticle with silicone for a sleek finish that lasts just until the next wash. Olaplex (a three-step system containing a bond-repairing chemical compound), however, is the new gold standard. Formulated in California by two of the world’s leading PhD fellows in Materials and Chemistry, Eric Pressly and Craig Hawker, the breakthrough treatment was found carried in over 7,000 US salons within just four months of launching in December 2014.
Available in selected Singapore salons since last year, it not only reduces the number of lightening sessions needed, but also minimises damage and is said to improve hair quality post-dye. (Ever wonder how Kim Kardashian turned up at 2015 Paris Fashion Week sporting a white bob, only to return to her natural colour a month later?)
First, it’s mixed into the bleach and applied to hair, so that while the bleach is breaking existing bonds, Olaplex is simultaneously repairing and creating new ones. After rinsing off the bleach, a cream-based mask containing the same active ingredient is applied and left on hair to intensify the strengthening effects. The last step is a take-home product that maintains the bonds between salon visits.
How to care for bleached locks
Of course, even the best bleach job can be easily undone without proper at-home maintenance. Hair is more fragile, and can turn brassy as the toner washes out, leaving tacky-looking yellow and orange tones. Purple is on the opposite spectrum of yellow, so purple-tinted products can lift and neutralise brassiness. Redken Blonde Idol Custom-tone Treatment Conditioner deposits violet pigments in hair – a must-have for bottle blondes (it also works well for those with silver, ash and lavender shades).
When it comes to shampoo and conditioners, dump the harsh sulphates and look for gentler options that strengthen and moisturise, like the L’Oreal Professionnel Pro Fiber Reconstruct Shampoo, which contains a strand-rebuilding molecular complex to form a protective sheath around strands. To prevent colour from fading and looking dull, mild shampoos like La Biosthetique Protection Couleur Shampoo Vital stop the pigments in the keratin from oxidising. Hair remains vibrant and shiny for longer.
Reduce additional stress like friction from brushing by using protective and preventive treatments. John Frieda Frizz Ease 10 Day Tamer Pre-wash Treatment is applied onto dry hair for 10 minutes before shampoo and conditioner, and works by preventing humidity from disrupting the protein bonds in the hair shaft, so it stays sleek and untangled for up to five washes.
Finally, a nourishing and restorative leave-in is a must. My favourite is Kerastase Resistance Serum Therapiste, which has two separate chambers and dispenses a moisturising oil and a cuticle-sealing cream in one pump. Containing peptides, proteins and amino acids, the serum detangles damp, washed hair and protects from heat styling for up to 230 deg C. Or go the natural way with oil products like PHS Hairscience ADV Argan Oil for all-day shine and softness sans chemicals (your hair’s had enough).
Photography Zaphs Zhang, assisted by Cheryl Raharjo Styling Imran Jalal Hair Veronica Ng/Kimage Makeup Melissa Yeo/FAC3INC, using Urban Decay Model Larissa/Ave Jacket & Earrings Chanel Top Stylist’s own
An adapted version of this appeared in Female‘s July 2016 issue.