The natural pursuit of bright, sun-kissed locks may get you in some unexpected trouble.It may be better, and less risky, to stick with professional hair lightening methods to achieve your desired tone.
When the weather warms up, you may have the desire to try a lighter hair color. A salon can be expensive, as well as time-consuming. Wouldn’t it just be easier and cheaper to apply lemon juice to your hair and sit out in the sun for a while? You could even do it while working on your laptop or reading a book. Multitasking at its finest? Yes, please.
Though the lemon juice trick has been around for a while, the resurgence in interest may be due to the fashionable focus on natural solutions for skin and hair care. We’ll cover whether or not this works, if it’s a viable alternative to at-home or in-salon color treatments, and how to care for your hair when using lemon juice or traditional dye.
Will Lemon Juice Lighten Your Hair?
It’s possible. “Lemon juice can alter the tone of your hair because of the reaction that occurs when it’s exposed to UV rays,” says Meg Schipani, a master hair color expert in Los Angeles and a Colorproof Ambassador.
The way hair changes color when exposed to the sun is a result of damage from UV rays, according to research. It's more likely to happen if you have lighter locks to begin with. If you were ever a towheaded kid, you may remember how sun-bleached your hair became in the summer months.
For maximum effect, what’s needed is sun plus lemon juice. “[Lemon juice] intensifies the effect that the sun naturally has on the hair,” Schipani explains. Acids in the lemon break down the hair’s cuticle, allowing the sun's rays to penetrate deeper.
Lemon juice acids alone could do that in theory, says Jenny Liu, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. But this is a very inefficient way of lightening hair: It takes a long time and produces mediocre results, she says.
Is It Safe and Effective?
There’s no available research on the merits or safety of using lemon juice to lighten your hair. With a couple of rare exceptions, lemon juice and UV are generally safe, but you might not get the look you’re going for, and it’s likely not the healthiest practice. “The problem is unpredictable results,” says Dr. Liu. “Naturally, that’s really how coloring works. In part, the process removes the protective coating on hair to allow a different color to come through.”
If you have darker hair, lemon juice and sunlight probably won’t deliver your ideal color. And if your hair is already highlighted and you’re trying to enhance it with lemon juice? You may get a brassy look instead, says Liu.
Schipani agrees: “Naturally light blond is the only starting base that would likely experience the brightening effect that’s desired,” she says. Most likely, you either won’t notice much of a difference or you'll get the brassiness Liu mentions.
UV rays also affect the structure of hair, which can cause drying and make hair more breakable, per research. If your hair is already dyed, UV rays can cause the color to fade — so you may also be doing your hair more harm than good. The combination of lemon juice’s acids and UV rays may mean you’re left with faded, dry, and brittle hair, says Schipani.
Is Natural Better When It Comes to Hair Color?
One reason lemon juice may be appealing is the fact that it’s a fruit juice and thus seems like a more natural option. If you’re concerned about the safety of regular hair dye, keep in mind the American Cancer Society's statement that “most studies have not found a strong link between hair dye use and cancer, but more research is needed.”
In addition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) points out that a small amount of chemicals in hair dye is absorbed through your scalp, and experts today now give the green light to dyeing your hair during pregnancy. (Always talk to your ob-gyn for specific guidance, though.)
Also keep in mind, says Liu, that everything has chemicals, and lemon juice doesn’t exactly avoid the issue. “The compounds in lemon juice are also chemicals,” she says, adding that natural ingredients can cause more issues than synthetic ones. As a September 2019 editorial in JAMA Dermatology noted, “natural is a marketing term that does not necessarily mean safer or more effective.” Natural products often contain botanical extracts that cause irritation, allergic skin reactions, and reactions in conjunction with sun exposure, the authors wrote.
One very specific example? The combination of some citrus juices, including lemon, and UV exposure from the sun can cause a condition called phytophotodermatitis, past research found. This is often referred to as “margarita dermatitis” for its propensity to show up on the hands when the citrusy, boozy drink is spilled.
How to Lighten Your Hair Safely
No matter how you’re looking to lighten your hair, keep these four tips in mind to do it safely and effectively.
1. Go to a Pro (or Bring a Box Home)
As for ‘natural’ ways to lighten your hair, Liu doesn’t have any suggestions. “I personally don’t recommend playing chemist at home, especially since there are lots of available and relatively affordable coloring products in drugstores,” she says. Ultimately, you’re better off with an at-home coloring kit or an appointment at a salon.
The upside of having a professional stylist and colorist color your hair is that they not only know what they’re doing, but they can also advise you on a color or product for your specific hair color, texture, and the current health of your hair.
2. Less Is More
If you’re using an at-home coloring kit, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends more subtle changes. Rather than going very blond if you’re a natural dark brunette (or vice versa), they suggest purchasing a dye that’s within three shades of your natural color. Going any more drastic requires more damage, and that's best left to a professional for the safest and most predictable results.
What’s more, a color correction on a home job often takes more time and money than if you'd had it done at a salon in the first place. That also requires more processing on already compromised hair, says Schipani.
3. Watch for Reactions
Hair dye can cause an allergic reaction on your skin, so if you notice a rash, redness, swelling, burning, or itching, the AAD advises you to stop dyeing your hair and speak to a board-certified dermatologist to test you for an allergy to dye (or a specific dye ingredient).
4. Care for Your Color
Specific shampoo and conditioner, as well as other products, like hair masks, designed for color-treated hair help preserve your color and promote the health of your hair by restoring moisture and strength, says Schipani.
The Bottom Line: Stick With Professional Hair Lightening Methods
Unless you have naturally very light blond hair, lemon juice (plus the sun) may create inconsistent or mediocre results — not the sun-kissed beachy look you’re going for. In most cases, it’s best to go to a professional or use a professional at-home product. “I haven’t seen or heard of a ton of clients using lemon juice for lightening. I think it’s because professionals have created more of a presence on social media and are posting informative videos about the risks of different methods of at-home lightening,” says Schipani