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Genie in a Bottle: How to Get “Natural” Blonde Highlights at Home

By Amalah

Hi Amy,
I have to say that I check your blogs regularly b/c our kids are the same age. That said — I need some hair help. I have medium brown hair, slightly graying (thanks to those 2 kids . . .). When I had time to spend outdoors, my hair used to blonde up naturally. Now, not so much. I used to love the John Frieda Sun Streaks hair lightening gel — I could use it to do just a little bit o’ highlights whenever I wanted, it looked pretty good, and it was super-cheap. But they went and discontinued it on me. Is there anything similar on the market? I can’t bear to get into the rut of the salon highlights.

For the record, the John Frieda Sun Streaks gel was a peroxide-based product. Like good ol’ . So if you really want something similar, you can use Sun In. But despite the product names and the marketing, the sun has nothing to do with the results. This is not natural lightening — it’s peroxide. Bleach. They are…not good for your hair, you guys. Not that salon highlights or boxed color are the height of natural hair care or anything, but the bleach-in-a-bottle stuff tends to cause more damage because people often don’t really understand what it is they’re using.
I used Sun-In as a teenager — some repackaged version that contained lemon juice (an actual natural lightener), and thus I took it to the beach and dutifully sprayed my hair up every day to soak up those amplified rays. And, you know, all that awesome bleach. My hair certainly got really blonde but also fried to a crisp. It was dry, damaged, brittle and I had no choice but to cut most of it off a couple months later. I’ll never forget the damning lecture from my hairstylist as she surveyed the stripped-out pile of hay on my head. “If you want to color your hair, just color your &%$# hair!”
And if you really want to use a peroxide-based product, you need to accept what it really is (bleaching) and treat your hair as if it is colored. I imagine you could offset the damage by upgrading to a salon-quality shampoo and conditioner for colored hair, deep conditioning on days you lighten, and keep your use of the product fairly minimal (i.e., not much more often than you would head to the salon or touch up boxed color). I also imagine a lot of the SUN-IN IS SO BAD FOR YOUR HAIR NOOOOO! hoopla comes from stories exactly like mine: somebody stupidly didn’t read the label, fell for the “gentle solar-powered formula!” tagline and overused the stuff, not realizing that she was indeed, coloring her hair.
Any non-bleaching alternatives? Yes, though we are actually talking “subtle” lightening here, and non-permanent. John Frieda now has a peroxide- and ammonia-free glaze that promises to refresh blonde highlights right in the shower using “mild cosmetic dyes,” whatever that means. suggest that it might be better suited to extend the life of existing salon highlights, rather than lightening non-colored hair, but for around $10, I’d say it’s worth a try. (I’d also still say you should be using a good shampoo and conditioner with it, or at least something highly moisturizing.)
If you want to ditch harsh mystery chemicals entirely, the LUSH Marilyn Hair Treatment Moisturizer ($18.55 at is the way to go. Lemon juice, chamomile, linseed, saffron, and olive oil help gently lighten your hair and deep-condition it at the same time. I’m not sure how great it would be at covering gray, though. If you’ve got $30 to spare, you could double-up your lightening efforts by using the Frieda glaze and the LUSH treatment as your weekly deep moisturizer.
And yes, there’s always straight lemon juice, diluted with water in a spray bottle and spritzed in your hair at the beach or pool. It’s “natural” but should still be used with care to avoid excessive dryness. Never use full-strength juice on your hair — a few of the home recipes for hair lightening rinses out there suggest no more than a tablespoon per gallon of warm water. That might be a little TOO conservative, even for me (translation: will. take. for. ever. to see real results), and I hereby give you permission to up that a little so long as you promise to use a really nice conditioner on a regular basis. (I also vote for squeezing juice out of the lemons yourself, rather than using bottled juice. It’ll be much more potent, plus it’s good for your nails! Whee.)


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • beth

    April 6, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Citrus+sun+skin=phytophotodermatitis, aka citrus burn.
    The same compounds in the lemon juice that lighten your hair can also cause your skin to react to UV light… resulting in a poison-ivy-like rash – itchy, sore, red/brown welts.

  • Molly

    April 6, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    So, so true (the lemon burn). See also: me on the beach at 15, dutifully squeezing lemons on my head, ending up with lemon burn all around my hairline and looking hideous.

  • class factotum

    April 6, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Kathleen, I used to use the L’Oreal home highlighting kit. My husband was very good at pulling strands through the little hat. (He gives a mean pedicure, too. There are certain traits that picky, detail-oriented engineers have that are quite desirable.)
    Anyhow. As the gray got stronger, it was harder to blend it in with highlights. I surrendered and told my hairdresser to do what she wanted and she took me darker.
    I love it! I am no longer mousy but rich, deep brown. I can wear white without looking washed out!
    As I am about as cheap as they come, though, I asked my hairdresser how I could achieve this look at home. It’s easy: I use the Clairol Natural Instincts temporary hair color (the stuff that washes out after 28 shampoos, in theory). I leave it on for 40 minutes or so and voila: #24 Medium Ash Brown Clove. Costs me about $3/month because I use only half the formula (that is, mix only half) because my hair is only chin length.
    The color is close enough to my own color that I never really get roots — it fades just enough as my hair grows out that you really can’t tell. I know it’s time to color again when I see bits of gray at the roots, but that’s about it.

  • Vanessa

    April 6, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Oooh! I just read a review on The Daily Obsession of the John Frieda glaze:

  • Lisa

    May 6, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Unlike Sun-in, John Freida Sun Streaks gave me lemony highlights. This seems to be a common observation. Since they are both peroxide based, I am wondering why the John Freida product worked so much better.