Are There Safe Alternatives to Chemical Highlighting?

This time of year is highlight season at salons across the country. Along with self-tanners, bronzers and sandals, part of the warm-weather beauty regimen can also involve a trip to the hairdresser’s chair to lighten up your locks.

Meant to mimic the streaky shots of blonde that are a natural result of lots of sun exposure, chemical highlights can produce the same effect–but are they safe? Since most highlight techniques don’t go the root of the hair or touch the scalp, they’re considered a safer alternative to all-over color. But you are still treating the shaft of your hair with chemicals to alter the color, though ammonia-free bleach is the usual stripping method in salons these days, which is a much gentler process than what was used in days past. Moisturizing formulas protect the hair more, but still employ chemicals to impart color.

If you’re going for it, a smart highlighting method is balayage, a hand-painted highlight technique that keeps dye far from the root and scalp but still leaves a lovely, multi-dimensional color. Ombré highlights, only applied to the bottom portion of the hair, well away from the scalp and root, is another option that offers pretty results. Even safer? If you’re fair-haired try using lemon essential oils as a natural alternative to Sun-In–the concentration of lemon oil really works to lighten and bring out natural highlight tones. Chamomile is another natural herb often used in highlighting or lightening blonde hair.

In the end, if you must color, highlighting exposes less of your hair and skin to chemicals, and takes less time to complete, so your exposure to fumes and chemicals is lower than with all-over hair color. But if you’re really concerned, go the natural route.