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How to Lighten Hair With Developer | Step-by-Step Guide

The word on the web is that you can lighten hair with developer alone or with a mix of developer and shampoo. However, it’s not always a good idea. Read our guide before you try this DIY trick. You’ll thank us later.

You Can Lighten Hair With Developer, But Should You?

Short answer graphic to can you lighten hair with developer

Going lighter with your hair color typically means mixing up bleach powder and developer, then applying the mixture to your hair. But what happens when you take bleach powder out of the mix and use straight developer only? 

As people are discovering, you can actually lighten your hair with developer alone. But you have to do it properly to avoid seriously and permanently damaging your hair. The developer volume you use is important, as is the duration you leave it on your hair and how you apply it. 

So while you can lighten your hair with developer alone, doing it in a way that won’t damage your hair or give you unwanted results requires a little finesse and expertise. Don’t worry, we’ll cover all you need to know about this bleachless lightening method and more in our guide! 

We’ll start by taking a closer look at developer, what it is, and how it can work to lighten your hair without bleach. Then, we’ll talk about the types of results you can expect when using this method (how many levels will developer alone lift your hair?) and cover the pros and cons of using developer without bleach. 

Keep reading to find out how this method works and what you should know before trying it! 

What Is Developer and How Does It Work?

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Hair Developer is a hair dye and bleach lifting agent that contains hydrogen peroxide. The role of developer is important: It opens up the outermost layer of the hair, the cuticle, to allow the chemicals in hair dye or bleach to penetrate deeply and oxidize. 

Without developer, bleach powder won’t lift your hair color to a lighter shade. But what about using developer sans bleach to lighten hair? 

You can lighten hair with developer and no bleach as long as it’s the right strength or volume. That’s because developer contains hydrogen peroxide, and peroxide oxidizes the existing melanin pigments in the hair resulting in a lighter color. 

If you’ve ever used a color removal product on your hair and found your hair underneath turned out a little lighter than your natural color, that was due to the subtle lightening (oxidizing) effects of hydrogen peroxide in the color remover. 

Which Volume of Developer Lightens Hair?

Common developer volumes for a piece on how to lighten hair with developer with a chart of the various peroxide contents in 10-40 volume developers

Developer comes in different volumes, or strengths, that indicate how much hydrogen peroxide they contain. For traditional dye and bleach, stylists will choose which developer volume you’ll need based on the dye or bleach being applied, your desired results, and your hair type. 

For lightening purposes without bleach, you’ll need to know which developer volume is safe and effective to use. The most common developer volumes are 10, 20, 30, and 40. But you’ll get the best results from using either 20 or 30 volume developer to lighten your hair. 

  • 10 volume = 3% peroxide
  • 20 volume = 6% peroxide
  • 30 volume = 9% peroxide
  • 40 volume = 12% peroxide

10 Volume

Before after of a guy who's just lightened his hair with vol 10 developer

Typically, 10 volume developer is used to deposit hair dye – not lift the hair color to a lighter shade. It’s only 3% peroxide, so 10 volume developer just doesn’t have enough power to noticeably lighten hair color in one session, especially without bleach.

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However, people have reported success using 10 volume developer, or a bottle of 3% hydrogen peroxide, daily over a week or so to achieve a color that is 1-2 levels lighter. You can also use 10 volume developer if you’re applying a hair dye that is your current level or darker. 

Overall, 10 volume developer is safe to use for lightening purposes, especially for fine/fast-lifting hair at the roots, but it’s not very effective. 

20 Volume

Before after of a black woman who's just lightened her hair with vol 20 developer

Next is 20 volume developer, which is twice as strong as 10 volume with 6% peroxide. Using 20 volume developer will lighten your hair even without bleach because of the lifting effect it has on the outermost layer of your hair (the cuticle layer).

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Applying 20 volume developer to your hair causes the cuticle cells to swell and lift up. When you combine developer with bleach or dye, this opening and lifting of the cuticle layer is what allows the dye or bleach to deeply penetrate strands. 

Without bleach, 20 volume developer alone can lighten your hair by about one level. So if you’re currently a level 5 light brown, using 20 volume developer alone can lighten it to a level 6 dark blonde. 

We recommend using 20 volume developer to lighten your hair – it’s safe, won’t cause too much damage, and has noticeable results. 

30 Volume

Before after of a blonde who's just lightened her hair with vol 30 developer

A higher 30 volume developer is stronger than 10 and 20 volume because it contains a higher percentage of hydrogen peroxide (9%). It has stronger oxidizing, and therefore lightening, effects on the hair. Unfortunately, that also means 30 volume developer is a lot more damaging to hair.

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30 volume developer can offer you more lift than 20 volume. You can get up to 2 levels of lift when using 30 volume developer alone, or up to 4 levels of lift when using 30 volume mixed with bleach. 

Since 30 volume developer is much more damaging, you have to be very careful with how long you leave it in your hair. It has a stronger lifting ability, so it pries your cuticle layer further open and can result in hair prone to dryness, frizz, breakage, and dandruff. It can also result in chemical burns on the scalp and skin. 

Overall, we don’t recommend using 30 volume developer to lighten hair without bleach unless your hair is healthy and needs at least 2 levels of lift. If you think your hair can withstand the increased damage 30 volume developer does, it’s certainly an effective way to lighten your hair by up to 2 levels. 

40 Volume

Before after of a brunette woman who's just lightened her hair with vol 40 developer

Using 40 volume developer to lighten hair without bleach isn’t a good idea at all. Ask any stylist. This strong, 12% peroxide developer is the most damaging to hair and is only used in circumstances where a high level of lift is needed. You can achieve 5-8 levels of lift when using 40 volume developer mixed with bleach.

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Leave the 40 volume developer use to the professionals. There’s too much risk of burning your scalp and skin with this high level of hydrogen peroxide. Plus, if you leave it on too long (sometimes even 20 minutes is too long), it’ll absolutely ruin your hair. 

Many women report having to resort to doing a big chop and starting over after damaging their hair with 40 volume developer combined with bleach. If you take one thing away from this guide, it should be “Don’t use 40 volume developer to lighten hair.”

Pros and Cons of Lightening Hair With Developer

Hair color depth chart graphic to help the reader understand how to lighten hair with developer

Now that you know how developer works to lighten hair color, let’s talk about the pros and cons of using the developer-only method. There are positives and negatives to lightening your hair with developer sans bleach. 

Pros (What We Like)

Here are the reasons you might consider using developer without bleach to lighten your hair color. 

  • Can be less damaging to hair: If you use 10 or 20 volume developer, it’s going to do a lot less damage to your hair than bleaching it with a higher-volume developer. Lower-volume developers don’t open the cuticle layer as much, limiting the amount of damage done to strands. 
  • Achieves 1-2 levels of lift: If a lighter hair color is what you’re after, using developer will help you achieve 1-2 levels of lift. So if you’re currently a dark blonde, developer alone could take you from dark blonde (level 6) to medium (level 7) or light blonde (level 8). 
  • Subtle but noticeable results: If you’ve ever hated a bold change you made to your hair, lifting your color with developer is much safer because the results are subtle. You might achieve a color that is 1-2 levels lighter than your current color. So it’s noticeable, but not shockingly different. 
  • Cheap to do: Developer is inexpensive to purchase – around $3 to $10 for a bottle. Since all you need to use this lightening method is developer (or developer and your favorite shampoo), the overall cost is very low compared to buying bleach powder and developer or visiting a salon professional. 
  • Works quickly: If you’re using 20 to 30 volume developer, you’ll be able to get lighter results in 20-30 minutes. Avoid leaving developer on your hair too long, which can cause a lot of damage to your hair, scalp, and skin. 

Cons (What We Don’t Like)

Here are the reasons using developer to lighten your hair color can cause problems. 

  • Potential for serious damage: If you don’t fully understand the chemistry behind lightening hair color, you risk damaging your hair, scalp, and skin beyond repair. The “best case” scenario for developer damage is hair that feels rough, porous, frizzy, dry, and prone to breakage. The worst-case scenario is chemical burns on your scalp and skin. Know the risks before you try this method. 
  • The results are permanent: The peroxide in developer will permanently change the color of your hair because it oxidizes the natural melanin pigments in your hair. So your hair will remain the color your developer lifts it to until you cut it off, bleach it, or apply dye over it. If you hate the results, the fact that they’re permanent is a major downside. 
  • You only get 1-2 levels of lift: If you have dark hair and want to go blonde, developer just won’t cut it. You can only get up to 2 levels of lift safely when using developer without bleach to lighten your hair. For many people, 1-2 levels aren’t enough to achieve the results they want. 
  • Timing is everything: If you lose track of time while developer is sitting on your hair, you’re going to cause some serious damage. Experts recommend leaving developer on your hair no longer than 30 minutes, but 20 minutes is a safer cutoff time. 

How to Lighten Hair With Developer

You’ve read the pros and cons. If you’re still convinced that lightening your hair with developer sans bleach is the way to go, you’ll want to ensure you’re doing it safely and effectively. We have complete, step-by-step instructions on how to do it below.

If you’re planning on lightening your hair with developer alone (no bleach), you first need to find a creme (sometimes called cream) developer. Creme developers have a conditioner or lotion-like consistency. This makes it easy to apply the developer directly to hair without messing with liquid developers. Make sure you start with clean, dry hair. 

You’ll Need:

  • Bottle of creme developer (20 or 30 volume)
  • Dye brush (or toothbrush for highlights)
  • Small bowl
  • Shower cap
  • Hair clips

Directions

First, use hair clips to section your hair into 4-5 equal sections. This will ensure you’re able to cover all of your hair evenly without missing areas. Next, add enough developer to the bowl to cover your head – you can always add more to the bowl as you work.

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Use your dye brush to dip into the developer and start applying it about 2 inches down from your roots. This will give you a natural, low-maintenance shadow root result that won’t require root touch-ups as quickly. 

Use the brush to evenly apply developer to every section you want to lighten. Aim for saturation of each section, but make sure you’re not leaving a ton of excess developer on your hair. Cover your hair with a shower cap once you’re done applying. 

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Check your hair to see how it’s progressing. If it’s reached your desired level of lift, go ahead and rinse the developer out and follow with shampoo and conditioner. If it’s not quite there yet, you can leave it up to 10 minutes longer. Be sure to rinse it out thoroughly. 

Dry your hair to see the final result – depending on the volume of developer you used, it should be 1-2 shades lighter than the color you started with. 

Should You Lighten Your Hair With Developer?

Image titled should you lighten your hair with developer?

Lightening your hair with developer alone does work. But is it a good choice for your hair? The answer depends on a few factors. Let’s take a look.

  • Is your hair healthy or damaged? Healthy hair is by far the best candidate for the developer lightening method. It offers better resistance to the damage from peroxide that lifts the outer layer of hair and makes it more porous. Applying developer to lift damaged hair to a lighter color can result in extreme damage that must be cut off. Skip this method if your hair is already damaged. 
  • Do you have the right supplies? Make sure you’ve got everything you need to do this method properly the first time. Start by buying a 20 or 30 volume developer – never 40 volume. If you don’t have a dye brush, it’s worth picking one up to ensure you get even application. Make sure you’ve got clips to section your hair for the best results. 
  • How light do you want to go? This method is awesome if you’re only looking to go a level or two lighter. If you’re hoping to go more than 2 levels lighter – or if you’re trying to go light blonde – you should skip this method and opt for bleach and developer instead. 
  • What will you do if you hate it? Lightening with developer won’t give you dramatically lighter results, but it can uncover orange or brassy tones in some hair colors. Think of how you’ll handle it if you hate the results because they’re permanent. Your backup plan might be a darker dye to cover it up, bleach to further lighten it, or purple shampoo for subtle toning effects on light-colored hair. 
  • Do you feel comfortable DIYing your hair color? Some women are already super-comfortable dying their own hair and experimenting with methods like this. But if you’re feeling unsure or nervous about messing up your hair, listen to your gut. You can always go to a professional to have your hair lightened. That will ensure you get the results you want. 

It’s your hair – only you can decide if this method is worth trying or not. If your hair is healthy, you’ve got the right supplies, you’re willing to follow the directions above closely, and you feel confident that you can do it, we say go for it. 

If you’re not quite sold on the developer lifting method, that’s okay. You can always keep your current color, try a different color with an at-home color kit, or visit a salon for a new look. Whatever you decide, one thing is certain: you’re gonna look fabulous.

Click for Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use just developer to lighten hair?

It is better for your hair not to mix a developer with bleach. Developer contains hydrogen peroxide and activates hair color or bleach. Your results will be more colorful and intense if you use bleach, so you will need to use a large amount of the developer to achieve significant lightening.

Can you remove hair color with developer?

Yes. Developer mixed with shampoo will remove hair dye. Because the developer lightens hair, you should plan on coloring your hair again after removing the old color. Note that this mixture will fade, not remove, permanent hair dye. Use a moisturizing shampoo because the peroxide in developers damages hair.

How do you use developer with hair dye?

Combine the developer and dye in a bowl at a 1:1 to 1:2 ratio. Mix well and begin applying to your hair from ends to roots. Developers open hair cuticles and allow the dye to penetrate, so the color will last longer when a developer is used instead of hair dye alone.

Is developer the same thing as bleach?

No. Developer activates bleach when the two are combined. Applying this mixture to hair provides up to five levels of lightening. The developer alone only lightens hair up to two levels. Bleach is more damaging to hair than developers, so it is essential to use a good conditioner.

Should I shampoo my hair after dying it?

Wait a minimum of three days before shampooing. This time allows the color to penetrate and set, especially for temporary colors. When you do eventually shampoo your hair, make sure to rinse with cold water so the color doesn’t get stripped as quickly.

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