I've Been Bleaching My Hair for 18 Years—Here's How I Still Have Hair on My Head

Hello, my name is Erin Jahns, and I bleach the hell out of my hair. It's been going on for 19 years (I'm 29, and my first-ever color job was in fifth grade), and despite the amount of turmoil my strands have endured, I plan on being as blonde as physically possible until my dying day. Or, at least, until my hair goes white—we'll see what happens first.

But first, some context. As a baby and through most of grade school, I was as blonde as blonde could be. Of course, at the time, I couldn't have cared less about the color of my hair, and if anything, I probably wanted blue, glitter-streaked highlights like the Spice Girls or edgy black lowlights à la Christina. The only reason I begged for highlights when I reached the fifth grade was that I thought I'd look "glamorous" (lol), and it's what all the cool girls were doing. So naturally, I begged my mom and dad for an appointment until my mom finally acquiesced and brought me along to her next salon appointment.

Peroxide zebra stripes were my first foray into the world of fake blonde hair, and from that day onward, I never went back. As I got older, my natural baby blonde turned into dirty dishwater, thus my foiling sessions became increasingly regular and increasingly hard on my hair. By the end of high school, I was asking colorists for full bleach and tones (so I was 100% bleached versus just heavily highlighted), and by the time I got to college, it's fair to say my hair was in a legitimately sorry state. Not horrible, but on the brink of disaster if I wasn't ultra careful with how I cared for and treated it. Am I doing a good job of foreshadowing my impending hair doom?


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

Most people, at some point in their life, will have some kind of hair disaster. And while I had hoped I'd gotten mine out of the way in 1997 when my sister took me for a bowl cut at Kid's Hair, I wasn't so lucky. During my sophomore year of college, I experienced what my family, friends, and I refer to as "The Bleach Apocolypse of 2013." After receiving a full head of highlights at a highly regarded salon in Minneapolis (where I'm from), I was left completely unhappy with the color. The end result was an ashy, mouse-like shade of brown with weird tones of blue and purple (probably from some kind of toning mishap), and I was beyond confused about how the colorist had managed to stray so far from the bright, buttery-white blonde I'd always been.

In a panic (and because I had spent over $300 for said color), I begged her for options as to how she could fix it immediately. In hindsight, I should have sucked it up and sought out a different professional at another salon weeks later, but I had worked myself into a state and was completely desperate for an immediate solution. Also panicked (and a tad annoyed), the colorist told me the only way she could transform me into the bright blonde I wanted was to re-bleach over all of the highlights she had just foiled. (If you're cringing, you should be—that's legitimately the worst thing you can do to freshly weakened, colored hair, and her right to color hair should be revoked.) But, as I said, I panicked and immediately accepted her offer even though she should have known better, apologized, and sent me home. 

Fast-forward about one and a half hours later, and I was sitting in my car, bawling my eyes out with a wet, tangled, bleached-off disaster on top of my head. The bleaching was an entirely horrible idea and as the colorist washed my hair and attempted to comb through it, I watched in terror as fists of hair quite literally fell off my head. I know it might sound silly, and there are certainly larger world issues than a bleached hair disaster. At the time, I truly thought I would have to shave my head, and as much as I admire stars like Joey King, Charlize Theron, and Natalie Portman, I'm not an actress, and I don't have the cheekbones. 


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

Of course, the trials and tribulations I faced post-apocalypse are long and detailed enough for a novel, but long story short, I was, in the end, able to salvage my blonde hair despite the epic proportion of damage. I poured hours and hours into research, babysitting check after babysitting check into rehabilitation products, and even more hours and babysitting checks at a different salon, getting trims, treatments, and consistent TLC. (The morning after the disaster I went to an Aveda salon where—I kid you not—I became a staff project and am still remembered to this day.)

It took about three years for my hair to bounce back, and up until five years ago—right around when I moved to L.A. to become a beauty editor—I was convinced my hair would never be the same. I still struggled to grow it out, and even though I had cut back on my highlight appointments (I think I went at least six months without getting so much as close to heat or peroxide post-trauma), colorists never seemed to get the tone right and my hair perpetually felt like straw.

Until, that is, I met my two fairy hair godparents, celebrity hairstylist Cervando Maldonado and celebrity colorist Cassondra Kaeding. I met Cervando week one of my job as assistant beauty editor for Byrdie, and (bless him to infinity) he's taken me under his wing and helped bring my hair to health and lengths I never thought possible as a blonde. He's the only one I've let touch my hair, style- and cut-wise, since arriving in L.A., and I credit his amazing snipping genius and practical hair tips (get yourself avocado or coconut oil and apply it to your ends as much as possible) for reviving my hair over the past two years.

That said, even though my cut and length were on the right track, I was still consistently frustrated with my color (even in as star-studded of a town as L.A.), and it wasn't until Maldonado introduced me to Kaeding, that I truly felt I had found my long-lost color soulmate. I've met countless celebrity colorists thanks to my day job, but Kaeding is one of the most sought-after colorists in the industry right now, and she's also a complete and utter perfectionist when it comes to her art, technique, and reputation as a colorist. In short, she's the only kind of person you want to entrust your fragile hair with.

Unlike that colorist back in 2013, Kaeding actually told me she wouldn't touch my hair with any kind of color during our initial appointment (she's all about integrity and refuses to administer any risky behavior that could weaken or damage susceptible strands) and despite my disappointment, I waited an additional three weeks on top of the 10 I'd already waited so she could wield her magic. And, wield she did. Not only did Kaeding give me the best blonde hair job of my entire 29 years, but she also kept literally every single hair on my head. My strands have never been so long or so blonde, and everyone I see and talk to (even other celebrity hairstylists and colorists) are truly in awe of how healthy my hair is despite how bleached it is. Kaeding is talented enough to create an enigma out of me, and I couldn't be more grateful. 

To celebrate, and because I get so, SO many DMs and questions about how to fix bleached hair, I'm using my own experience as a forever blonde (I refer to myself as an unofficial official color expert) and Kaeding's legitimate expertise to provide a complete—and hopefully helpful—guide for blonde haircare below. Ahead, all of our combined best tips for how to care for and fix bleached, post-apocalyptic blonde hair. Keep scrolling!


(Image credit: @erin_jahns)

Tip #1: Haircuts Are More Important Than You Think They Are

The very first order of business post-bleach-apocalypse back in 2013 was a haircut. The stylist I saw said that although they would give me a protein and moisture treatment to help stop the immediate breakage (my hair kept falling and falling), I would continue to shed, so the best thing I could do was to part with as much length as I could emotionally handle. Not only would the cut help even out the look of my hair, it would also help prevent further splits and snaps. At the time, he chopped my boob-length hair to my collarbones, and I was diligent about coming into the salon for trims every month or two.

Years later, my cadence is every three months or so, and I make sure to see the same stylist (Maldonado) who knows my hair's history and my goals for length and thickness. My hair has never been so long or as thick, and I attribute that in part to my consistency with trims—even if it's just a dusting off the ends prior to a coloring appointment (which Kaeding always recommends pre-bleach).

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Tip #2: Always Schedule a Consultation Pre-Bleaching

Please learn from my mistake here, and before you go in for color with a new professional, stop by the salon for a consultation. Not only will you get a feel for the colorist and see their other clients' hair, you'll also be able to make a game plan with them to ensure you get the exact color you want without sacrificing the health of your hair. As I mentioned above, the first time I was booked to see Kaeding, I was scheduled for an allover highlight, but when I went in to see her, she had me go home and grow out my hair for another three weeks and said I'd be better off getting a bleach and tone rather than highlights considering how blonde I wanted to be and how inconsistent I'd been with different colorists since being in L.A. 

"We decided to take the bleach and tone approach because during our consult you expressed that the color hadn't been quite right," she explains. "There were some gold undertones you weren't fond of that needed to be eliminated, and your hair was in good enough condition. I knew that I would be able to go through, take my time, and get you to the desired bright blonde you have always wanted!"

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Tip #3: Find a Colorist You Trust

Again, please learn from my deadly error, and do a lot of research when searching for your perfect colorist and don't solely rely on a salon's name or owner. I've seen more colorists and been to more salons than I could count on my fingers and toes, and just because a salon is owned by a famous name or has a "good reputation" doesn't speak to every single stylist or colorist housed there.

Even being in an industry city like L.A., I've had some pretty terrible experiences and some pretty terrible color. When I met Kaeding, it was like a breath of fresh air. She took her time, she was relaxed, and I felt safe in her hands. She also came recommended by Maldonado, whom I 110% trusted, and her Instagram showcases a lot of her work so I could rest assured she was well-versed in the color blonde I was hoping for. Bleaching is a really intense (and scientific) process, and going to the wrong person can be the do-or-die factor when it comes to both the color and integrity of your hair. 

"Bleaching is really tough," Kaeding agrees. "It's easy to over-process the hair, which will cause extreme dryness or even breakage. My advice to other colorists is to take your time, do the work, and absolutely don’t rush. If both time and care are put into the application, your hair will stay healthier and longer, which means you can stay blonder longer.

"What I did was coat the previously bleached, highlighted hair with Redken's All Soft Heavy Cream Super Treatment Mask ($22). This helps the new bleach I was going to be applying from overlapping onto the old, pre-lightened hair. I only applied bleach to the regrowth, and I put about a four-inch-long piece of cotton between each thin section, which acts as a barrier so the bleach doesn’t expand onto old blonde and also helps absorb any excess bleach."

Tip #4: Put Your Dryers, Irons, and Wands Away

If you want to have super-blonde and super-healthy hair, lots of heat styling just isn't in your foreseeable future. (Sorry!) I didn't touch a blow-dryer or my beloved flat iron for months and months after my bleaching disaster, and unless I absolutely have to, I still airdry my hair whenever possible and avoid my collection of hot tools, which, Kaeding completely supports, especially right after you've done major color or bleach.

"It depends on the client's severity of breakage, but the best thing to do after your color appointment is to leave your hair alone," she confirms. "Try not to do any more chemical processes until your colorist gives you the green light or tells you to come back in. Excessive bleaching will only worsen your hair's health, and you need to give it time to recover. Also avoid heat styling; using hot tools on damaged hair will cause more breakage."

Tip #5: Don't Shampoo Every Day

Not to wax poetic on the importance of not washing your hair every day, but… please don't wash your hair every day. I personally aim for about twice a week, which has been a game-changer as far as keeping my color vibrant and fresh in addition to expediting hair growth. Kaeding loves Redken's Color Extend Magnetics Shampoo ($39) and Conditioner ($39), which are sulfate-free (this is important!) and lightweight but packed with hydrating and strengthening ingredients to help your hair recover post–bleaching trauma. 

Tip #6: Prepare Your Hair (and Body!) Before Your Bleaching Appointment

Surprise, surprise, don't follow my 2013 lead by pre-gaming a bleaching process with more bleaching. Instead, in the weeks prior to the big color appointment, you should flood your system with the essential vitamins, nutrients, and hydration to encourage healthy, strong strands. 

"Before a big bleach process, I like to tell clients to do a hair mask once a week, and to take hair vitamins to make sure your hair is healthy and strong," Kaeding tells me. "Keep hydrated—what you put in your body does impact the state of your skin, nails, AND hair. Drink lots of water, and eat fruits and vegetables that are high in water content."

Tip #7: Bring a Wide-Tooth Comb With You Wherever You Go

I'll admit watching that colorist attempt to comb through my bleached-off hair all those years ago still gives me nightmares, and to this day, I baby the eff out of my hair. In addition to using my favorite products religiously, I also take painstaking care when it comes to detangling and brushing my hair. I strictly use a wide-tooth comb on damp hair, starting with my ends, and working my way up, and use my favorite Shine Enhancer brush from Wet Brush only when completely necessary on my dry strands. It's even gotten to the point where I bring my comb with me to any kind of hair or blowout appointment and insist the stylist use it to detangle—unpopular opinion, but it results in significantly less breakage and fallout than a Wet Brush or Tangle Teezer. 

Tip #8 Make BFFs With Hair Masks—a Few of Them

Hair masks are a major part of bleached hair recovery, and I try to do one every single week (bearing in mind I only wash my hair twice a week), so basically every other wash. I rotate between Olaplex's Hair Perfector No. 3 ($28) and any of the seven formulas below depending on what my hair needs. If it feels like it's dry, I'll pick one that's more moisturizing; if I feel like it's weak and prone to snapping more than usual, I'll grab one that has more protein and is geared toward strengthening.

Kaeding is also on board with my hardcore masking habit and recommends a once-per-week cadence to her clients. She loves Redken's Color Extend Blondage Mask ($29), which also helps brighten and maintain lightened hair.

Tip #9: Invest in a Microfiber Hair Turban and Silk Pillowcase—Like, Now

How you choose to wrap and handle your hair when it's damp might seem innocent enough, but if you're pulling and yanking too aggressively or using the wrong materials, it can bear serious consequences.

Tip #10: Don't Forget the Extras

Aside from shampoo, conditioner, masks, and my beloved air-dry spray, pretty much the only products I ever use in my hair are heat protecting and detangling leave-in conditioners, serums, and clear oils. After I unwrap my hair from the turban, I'll smooth a nickel-size amount of hair oil (always clear if you're blonde!) into the entire length of my hair, and then I'll spritz through with my leave-in. If I feel like my hair needs even more TLC, I might use another specialized serum or cream, but it's just as needed, and again, just depending on what my hair is feeling and looking like. My favorites are below!

Up next: These 5 Colors Look Incredible on Blondes

This article was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.

Beauty Director

Erin has been writing a mix of beauty and wellness content for Who What Wear for over four years. Prior to that, she spent two and half years writing for Byrdie. She now calls Santa Monica home but grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and studied writing, rhetoric, and communication at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She studied abroad in Galway, Ireland, and spent a summer in L.A. interning with the Byrdie and Who What Wear family. After graduating from UW, she spent one year in San Francisco, where she worked as a writer for Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen before moving down to L.A. to begin her career as a beauty editor. She considers her day-to-day beauty aesthetic very low-maintenance and relies on staples like clear brow serum (from Kimiko!), Lawless's Lip Plumping Mask in Cherry Vanilla, and an eyelash curler. For special occasions or days when she's taking more meetings or has an event, she'll wear anything and everything from Charlotte Tilbury (the foundations are game-changing), some shimmer on her lids (Stila and Róen do it best), and a few coats of the best mascara-type product on earth, Surratt's Noir Lash Tint.