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The Stages of Lightening Dark Hair, Explained By a Pro

Understanding the stages of lightening dark hair is key to helping you achieve healthy and uniform color. A pro dishes out everything you need to know before making the transition.

Whether you have jet-black hair or an enviable dark red mane, you may have contemplated your life as a bottle blonde once or twice. No matter how much you fantasize, however, you often find yourself worrying about things like the damaging effects of bleach or whether your hair will properly take on such a fair new hair color.

Since making such a drastic color transition doesn’t happen overnight, understanding the stages of lightening dark hair can help you nail your final look and ensure strands remain healthy in the process. We spoke to Ryan Pearl, Redken brand ambassador, to discuss the realistic stages of lightening hair and the pro secrets to reducing any color-related damage.

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What is my hair level?

Before transitioning into a new hue, it’s important to identify your current hair color level. Your base color ultimately determines how many lightening levels you need to consider to achieve your new shade.

Whether virgin or dyed, Pearl explains that hair levels are calculated on a scale from one to ten, with one being the darkest and ten being the lightest. Your colorist can help you determine which bucket your strands fall under, but here’s a common breakdown:

  • Level 1: Black
  • Level 2: Brown/Black
  • Level 3: Dark Brown
  • Level 4: Medium Brown
  • Level 5: Light Brown
  • Level 6: Dark Blonde
  • Level 7: Medium Blonde
  • Level 8: Light Blonde
  • Level 9: Very Light Blonde
  • Level 10: Lightest Blonde/Platinum/White

Good hair day by @danielmbeauty

What are the 10 stages of hair lightening?

Depending on who you ask, there are either seven or ten stages of lightening dark hair. Seven stagers argue that hair bleaches in seven simple primary colors. Those who swear by ten stages believe that seven colors are too basic and that there are nuanced tones between some levels that should be accounted for. All said, both ranges begin with black and end with very blonde or platinum.

Regardless of your level, you can expect to see a similar color shift during the stages of lightening dark hair.

“Your hair will go from reddish to orange to yellow, and finally a nice blonde that can be toned with Redken Shades EQ Gloss to your desired color,” says Pearl.

The seven stages of lightening dark hair are as follows:

  • Stage 1: Black/Brown. This is where many begin their hair-coloring journey.
  • Stage 2: Dark Brown. You can often reach dark brown in one bleaching session.
  • Stage 3: Light Brown. You’ll notice hair’s undertones skewing red or brown in this stage.
  • Stage 4: Dark Blonde. Similar to light brown but with more yellow pigments instead of red.
  • Stage 5: Medium Blonde. Where “true blonde” begins, medium blonde hair contains lighter yellow pigments than dark blonde.
  • Stage 6: Light Blonde. This shade is at the tail end of the color spectrum and is a very dull, pale blonde since the yellow pigment has been stripped away.
  • Stage 7: Icy Blonde/White: Almost an invisible blonde; hardly any pigment should remain at this stage.

Good hair day by @jackmartincolorist

How long does it take to lighten dark hair?

Major color changes—say, going from jet black to platinum blonde—may require six months to a year of salon appointments and commitments. When it comes to realistic stages of lightening hair, virgin hair can lighten in just one to two sessions, whereas a previously dyed mane may need several sittings of bleaching and toning to reduce the risk of overprocessing. As a general rule of thumb, Pearl typically advises clients to wait at least eight to ten weeks between each lightening appointment.

“It all depends on how light you want to go and what was previously done to the hair,” says Pearl. “On virgin hair, you can most likely lift up to seven levels [in one session]. This can become harder on a darker level hair.”

The strength of the bleaching agents used and how long they’re left on the hair can also play a role in how fast or how slow your dark hair lightens. A strand test will help your stylist determine the potency and timeline of your lightening service. An untrained eye may not be able to recognize the best course of action for your hair, which is why it’s especially important to visit a pro to reduce damage like brittleness and in some cases, even hair loss.

Your stylist will also take your hair porosity into consideration. In general, high-porosity hair tends to absorb bleach faster than low-porosity hair. While this can be a plus if you want to go super light more quickly, it can make your hair more vulnerable to damage. Don’t know your hair’s porosity? Check out our complete guide here.

What is the first stage in the 7 stages of lightening?

As mentioned, black or black-brown hair (Level 1) is the first stage of lightening dark hair.

How can I lighten my hair with the least amount of damage?

Healthy hair is the number one most important thing,” says Pearl. “If you feel like your hair is not in the best state, take your bleaching in steps.”

Bleaching and lightening your hair will always cause some degree of damage, but enlisting the expertise of a professional can minimize it to a point where it’s hardly noticeable. Your colorist also has access to pro-level hair-strengthening treatments during the bleaching process to further promote the integrity of your hair.

“I recommend having your colorist use products like Redken’s Flash Lift Power 9 Bonder Inside with a built-in bonder, as it helps to keep the hair healthy and protected,” says Pearl. “It helps minimize the hair bonds that can break during a color service.”

This innovative all-in-one bonder and lightening powder is formulated with glycine and citric acid to help minimize the amount of strong (disulfide) bonds that break during a chemical process like lightening. This allows your stylist to safely lift hair up to nine levels in one setting while preserving the fiber integrity of every hair type and texture. What’s more, the Flash Lift Power 9 Bonder Inside offers a faster take off as compared to the brand’s Flash Lift Bonder Inside—up to 17 percent in the first 15 minutes of processing.

Your at-home upkeep routine can also make a world of difference in your lightened hair’s look and feel. To keep your blonde hair fortified and healthy, Pearl suggests adding a bond-repairing system like Redken’s Acidic Bonding Concentrate to your routine. Made with all hair types and textures in mind, the Shampoo, Conditioner, Leave-In, and Intensive Treatment are an all-in-one concentrated system for damaged hair, providing the ultimate repair, intense conditioning, and color-fade protection.

Now that you’re familiar with the realistic stages of lightening hair, prepare to dial up your stylist—but first, why not gain some inspo by browsing through our best ideas for ash blonde hair?

Want more expert coloring advice and salon-grade hair products to add to your routine? Find all the answers on

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