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As a hair fanatic, and now as an experienced haircare formulator, I've tried many professional AND diy (do-it-yourself) methods out there – from No Poo and tea rinses, washing with Shikakai, baking soda and egg whites... holy guacamole, I've done them all! Some of these methods I really enjoyed, and some really damaged my hair over time.

I've also highlighted my own hair, just about my whole life, and continue to do so. I grew up in South America and going to the hairdresser was a luxury then! (It sort of still is though, isn't it? It's so expensive!) Plus, my mother loved doing everything herself so she would do our haircuts, styles and colouring too (and she loved having us with super short hair!).

lemons and hair health
Lemons are good for cooking and drinking, and help with digestion – but not for hair health.

When it comes to highlighting hair, however, there are so many DIY blogs, videos and articles of advice out there, that we needed to write this blog to clear the Amazonian-sized amount of myths that exist when it comes to highlighting hair naturally.

First, understand this:

Just because an ingredient is "natural" 
it doesn't mean it's safe for use 
on your hair and body.

So before you venture into highlighting your hair using lemon juice, remember that lemons will - undoubtedly - damage your hair and your scalp. It's unrefutable.

To understand how lemons may highlight your hair, you must understand a bit of the science behind it. Hang in there, we've made this really easy to follow:

The science of pH – summarized

As formulators, we work with a unit of measurement called pH (potential of Hydrogen), which measures whether something is acidic or alkaline.

pH scale for foods and natural hair products
Everything in nature has a pH level. Use this scale as a guide.

  • Tomatoes, for example, are quite acidic (pH around 3 or 4 depending on the variety)

  • Soap, is alkaline (anywhere around pH 10-12).

  • Water sits right in the middle, about ph 7 - or neutral.

Hair – that's the length of your hair itself, not the scalp – is quite acidic to start with, and it sits around pH 4.3 to 4.5

To colour hair effectively – whether at the hairdresser or at home using a colouring or highlighting kit, your hair cuticles (those shingle-like units that sit on top of the hair) need to lift, open, stand up, and expose the cortex underneath it.

pH for hair and scalp differences
Best pH for hair length: 4-3 - 4.5, while for the scalp it's more like pH 5 - 5.5.

When the cuticle is lifted, it can be damaged as some of the cuticle bits weaken and break off – this is why the hairdresser will apply a more alkaline solution after (shampoo) followed by a conditioner with silicone and protein, which will coat the hair temporarily to fill in those broken gaps.

What happens when you use lemon at home?

When you apply something like lemon juice over your hair, your hair cuticles lift and chemically reduce your hair colour pigment, pulling your natural hair colour out, and so your hair looks lighter (temporarily). The store- or drugstore-bought, seemingly 'inexpensive' shampoos you wash with after may not be formulated to fix this low pH issue enough to rebalance it, and damage can be inevitable.

Is it worth it? Certainly not.

What's worse, if you even touch your scalp using lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, you're causing incredible damage to your scalp too – and this can take quite a bit of time to rebalance on its own.

We have a whole blog post on what the scalp microbiome is and why it's so important to grow healthy hair right down from the roots. Give it a quick peek:

"BUT ACV makes my hair so healthy!" (Or does it?)

When I first ventured into the "No Poo Method", I experienced a lot of different natural ingredients to try to wash my scalp and beautify my hair length. The No Poo method is all about washing your hair using baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and rinsing with apple cider vinegar (ACV). There are many other No Poo methods out there, but this is the basic 101 method. And after learning so much about hair and scalp, it makes sense why ACV is recommended after a baking soda "wash".

Of course! Since baking soda is so highly alkaline and damaging to the hair, it will need an acidic rinse after (enter ACV).

The problem with this method is that you're trying to wash your 'scalp' with baking soda (which is very high in pH) and then rinsing your hair using ACV (very low in pH), both of which have different pH levels. So it's difficult to rinse your hair with ACV without touching your scalp and causing even more damage! The result? The scalp pH stays at a very high pH, damaging the microbiome and drying out your scalp, causing itchiness and an oil imbalance.

The reason why ACV makes your hair shiny is just because of what we just talked about: It has a low pH, which closes and flattens the cuticle, much like what a conditioner does (but in a slightly harsher way). The nice thing about ACV is that, if you use the ACV variation "with the Mother" you will be also adding some additional enzymes, natural bacteria (probiotic) which are great for digestion but do nothing much on hair since hair is biologically dead.

apple cider vinegar with "the mother" for hair use
Apple Cider Vinegar with "the Mother" is full of natural enzymes – good for digestion, neutral for the hair.

Are you following along ok? Here it goes again in a different way:

Back to basics:

SO What ACTUALLY makes lemon highlight your hair?

The fact that lemon is very acidic and opens the cuticle, while its high citric acid content bleaches or oxidizes your hair, is what causes this highlighting effect. You could also do this by using tomatoes or coffee (or some dairy products, Coca-Cola, or meat but yech!), but their natural pigment colour may deposit instead, making very light blondes look muddy yellow.

Why does apple cider vinegar (ACV) make my hair so soft, if it's damaging?

It's not that ACV is "damaging" to hair, per se – it's just that it should not be used often or recurringly, rather than using a softer, more pH-controlled conditioner.

What do we mean by "softer"? The pH of ACV is around 2-3, which is very acidic. This low pH can damage your hair by stripping away at the cuticle layers, much like using an acid. In fact, if you go to a professional dermatologist to get an acid peel on your face (a barbaric process that some people may have done to their face and decollete to treat wrinkles, scars and skin discolouration), the pH used for these treatments is very close to that of ACV (often even lower, close to 1.5 - 2 pH, much like battery acid!). Solutions that are so stripping are damaging to the hair and may cause fragile hair that frays and breaks easily.

Instead, use a pH-balanced hair conditioner for softer hair that reflects light more healthily. By comparison, most conditioners and leave-in conditioners' pH is between 4-4.5 pH.

What is the best method for highlighting hair?

There is an art to highlighting hair so it looks natural – that's why hairdressers exist. If you want to highlight your hair, the best ways are:

  1. Visit a hairdresser for a consultation. They studied this art and are experienced to advise on the best colour to match your complexion and fulfill your colour wishes. Research your favourite colours, but also take in consideration your skin tone as this will result in a nicer look.

  2. Try a home highlighting kit. These kits are formulated professionally by cosmeticians and reviewed by strict guidelines, to be safe for use at home. If in doubt, don't rush the process and try mixing a small portion to do a test on a small portion of your hair first before venturing into doing your whole head at once. I recommend looking for a highlighting kit that has a plastic cover with marked holes on it, which are excellent guidelines to follow so you don't over-highlight for more natural results. These bags also prevent the highlight ingredients from touching your scalp, which can cause a lot of damage to the skin on the scalp.

If you have recently highlighted your hair and would like to use an amazing hair treatment that will restore the lustre and softness of your hair, try our Hair Mask. It has been specifically formulated using natural conditioning ingredients to flatten the hair cuticle while infusing the hair with a subtle potion of baobab protein – the most effective and coveted form of plant-derived proteins for hair use. Check it out here:

On the same link you will find advice as to how often you should use a hair mask, depending on your hair condition. And it's so worthwhile!

Have you ever tried using lemon to highlight your hair? Did you like the results?

Comment below and let us know how it went! We would love to have your input.


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