What do all bleach and hair dye processes have in common? If you guessed hair developer, you are right. However, many people forget about this all important part of the dye or bleach mixture. If you want to achieve salon results when dying your hair at home, you need to learn about hair developer. Particularly if you want to break free from the box dye and start mixing your own custom hair dye like professionals do.
Hair developer is a cream product containing hydrogen peroxide. When applied to hair, it oxidises and opens the cuticle, lightening hair and allowing hair dye to penetrate the hair shaft for a permanent or semi-permanent effect. It is also used with hair bleach to create the lightening mixture that will remove pigment from hair.
Hair developer comes in different hair developer levels, depending on the volume of hydrogen peroxide it contains. Most at home box dyes will come with a bottle of peroxide suitable for the dye. Hairdressers often mix hair developer and dye following different formulas depending on:
Box dye is designed to work on “most” types of hair, so using it with the prepackaged developer will give you results but often they won’t be the perfect results you see on the box. If you want fine control when dying or bleaching your hair at home, you want to learn how to choose the right hair developer and mix it yourself.
Let’s look at what does developer do in more detail. Hair developer, or peroxide as it’s often known, has a two-fold effect on hair:
This is why your hair is lighter when you use Color Oops or other color removing products to get rid of hair dye. The color remover is not lightening your hair. The peroxide on the permanent hair colors you have previously used on your hair did, and removing the pigments show the lightening untoned hair.
There are different hair developer levels, and the higher the level the stronger the lightening and oxidising effect and the more damage it can cause to your hair. Generally speaking, when choosing the right hair developer level you want to go as low as necessary to do the job, to minimise hair damage. However, if you go too low you may find the dye doesn’t fully develop and doesn’t get embedded into the hair cuticle, resulting in patchy results and dye washing off easily.
This developer level contains 3% hydrogen peroxide, and it will at most darken your hair by one level when combined with hair dye.
10 vol hair developer is the baby of all hair developers, and the least agressive towards your hair. It is also the less efficient in terms of lightening your base color. It is frequently used with permanent, no-lift color or when using toners to adjust the color of your hair. It’s job is to open the hair cuticle so the color molecules from the dye can be deposited in the cortex for permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes.
20 vol developer is 6% peroxide, and is very commonly used when the color change is not drastic but still significant. It works better than 10 vol if you have thick, coarse hair and want to darken it a bit.
If you have more than 50% grey, or want to lift your natural hair color a couple of levels, you can use 20 vol hair developer. It will lift hair color a bit, and can also be mixed with bleach to lighten hair without depositing color. Grey hair is more resistant to dye than regular hair, so a 10 volume developer is often not enough to dye those greys and you’ll need to use a still gentle 20 volume developer for an even result.
At 9% hydrogen peroxide, 30 vol hair developer is enough to significantly lighten or darken with permanent hair color, but it can also damage fine or already damaged hair.
If your hair is resistant to color, more than 50% grey or you want to lightening it two or three levels, you will need to use 30 volume developer. This also works best for low porosity hair, as it works better to open cuticles that are naturally more resistant. You can also use 30 vol hair developer to bleach hair that is naturally light to medium brown to a light blonde.
Most box dyes use a 20-30 vol hair developer, which is more damaging but also guaranteed to work to deposit color evenly on the majority of hair types and even on grey hair. However, if you don’t need it because your hair is naturally lighter, you are working on virgin hair or you are only attempting to deposit color, use 20 instead.
12% hydrogen peroxide! That is quite a significant percentage, and 40 volume developer is not to be messed with. It can be used to significantly lift hair color, up to 8 levels.
With 40 vol developer, you are often better off visiting a hairdresser but some people swear by it. It can be used to create highlights without bleach using high-lift hair color, or mixed with bleach to lift hair color a lot. Nowadays, bond builders such as Olaplex can be used to protect your hair to a degree, but if you are bleaching your hair at home using a lower volume and bleaching several times is safer for your hair and your scalp.
Just say no. 50 volume developer will burn your scalp, destroy your hair and make you a very unhappy person. If you think you need 50 vol developer you should get yourself to a hairdresser and make a plan to lighten your hair in stages instead.
The usual developer to dye ratio is 1:1, and that applies to 20 vol developer as well. If you use too little hair developer, the dye won’t enter the hair cortex and it won’t deposit the pigments where you need them.
If you are trying to lighten your virgin hair using hair dye, you can mix 1:2 dye to developer, but the mixture will be more runny and more difficult to apply without dripping everywhere.
If you have previously colored hair, hair color won’t lift the previous dye and so you should consider bleaching first to remove some of the pigment until you reach your desired hair color level, and then toning or dying afterwards to the color you actually want.
You can use 30 volume developer on dark hair if you want to lighten it up significantly, or if you are trying to cover greys. If you have under 50% greys you can get away with a lower developer, but the greys will take pigment differently and will look like highlights. If you want an even, natural color, you’ll need to use 30 vol hair developer and deal with the damage by babying your hair a bit extra.
If you are looking to make a drastic color change, for example going from dark hair to blonde, 30 volume developer mixed with bleach can lift hair significantly with only moderate degree of damage. It’s true that this means you may need to bleach twice (leaving a few days and many protein treatments in between) but your hair will feel healthier and the blonde color will last longer.
Since bleaching dark hair can be challenging, be careful to choose the best bleach for dark hair to protect your hair as you lighten it, and always do a strand test before you get started.
It can be a bit confusing to understand the relationship of developer and bleach. After all, both lighten the hair right? So why do you need to use both? And when should you use developer vs bleach?
First of all, bleach without developer is an inert powder that won’t do anything apart from making your hair itchy. If you want to bleach your hair and lift more than 2 levels, you will need to use a bleach and peroxide mix.
Peroxide on its own will lighten hair, but only 2 levels. Mixed with bleach, it can lift up to 5 levels which means going from dark hair to blonde. Well, from dark brown to brassy, because you will need to tone the yellow and get rid of the orange after bleaching.
If you have previously dyed your hair, you will need to use bleach AND peroxided to get rid of permanent and semi-permanent colors, even if you don’t want to lighten your hair a lot. For example, if you want to change from a dark red to a slightly lighter ashy brown, you will need to bleach the artificial dye out of your hair.
You can usually cover dye with a darker dye and a low volume peroxide, but if you do this often eventually the color will look opaque because too much pigment will be deposited on your hair overtime. A hair color remover can help you get rid of accumulated pigment before you dye it again, but it won't return your hair to its original virgin color.
Hair developer volume determines the maximum amount of lift (or bleaching) you can accomplish with a particular bleach mixture, and how quick that process will be. Choosing what volume developer to use with bleach involves balancing your lifting requirements with your hair color history and hair health.
If you have light brown hair (Level 5) and you want to lift it to blonde (Level 8) you could be fine with a 20 volume developer. If we are talking natural, virgin hair, maybe even 10 volume (but it can get patchy).
If you have very dark hair (Level 1) and want to go all the way to blonde or silver (Level 12) you will need to use a higher volume developer, 30 or even 40, and a longer exposure. This will significantly damage your hair. It is often preferable to bleach your hair in several sessions over a few weeks, with a lot of hair care and sun protection in between. If you are trying to dye all of your hair, avoid 40 volume developer as it can be really damaging to the scalp and skin. It’s fine for a balayage or ombre, but it can really be too agressive to do at home by somebody unexperienced.
High volume peroxide and bleach will strip your hair of color, but also of protein and will make the cuticle rougher because it’s impossible to make it close back to the original virgin hair levels.
When deciding what developer to use with bleach, aim for a slower lift and a lower volume developer, as long as it does the job. Unlike hair dye, bleach mixture doesn’t deactivate itself after a while. So if you use a high developer for too long you run the serious risk of frying your hair and your scalp in the process. Products such as Smartbond or Olaplex (known as bond builders) can help protect the hair from too much damage but they are not the miracle workers marketing will have you believe. If you use too high developer with bleach, your can give yourself a chemical haircut and that’s really not cute.
Wondering what does hair developer do by itself? Hair developer lightens natural, virgin hair, but very very slightly. If you have light brown hair and want to cross over the blonde side, you can probably accomplish this with peroxide and nothing else.
If you want to lighten your hair by just one level, you can use 20 vol developer and nothing else, no bleach powder. Creme developer is usually easier to apply than liquid peroxide, and allows for a more controlled application because it won’t drip so much. Some creme developers have additives that condition hair as you use them, which is perfect if all you want is to lighten your hair a bit without bleach.
Use the developer on dry hair, and apply it to the areas you want to lighten starting from the ends and working towards the top. While 20 vol developer won’t burn your scalp as bleach would, it’s still better to keep it away from your scalp. The heat from your head will also make it more efficient.
Leave it about 20 to 30 minutes, and then shampoo your hair. A rich hair masque will help compensate for the slight damage to your hair and the end result will be very natural. You know that kind of blonde light brunettes get when they spend too long in the sun? That’s the kind of effect you get when using developer to lighten hair.
You can dye brown hair blonde without bleach using a high lift dye that works with a high volume developer to lighten and tone hair in one single step. Some of those dyes use powerful 30 or 40vol developers and should only be used for off-scalp coloring, such as highlights or balayage. Others can be used all over but will only produce authentic blonde results if your virgin hair is a dark blonde or light brunette to start with.
No matter your natural hair color, if you have already dyed your hair you won't be able to use blonde dye on brown hair to lighten it, as only bleach will lighten processed hair.
As you can see, learning what is a hair developer and what is it used for is key to achieve the hair color of your dreams. Whether you just want to cover your greys or are on a blonde journey, choosing the right hair developer will keep your hair healthy and make your color last longer.