Bleaching is a method of lightening the color of your hair. Through a chemical reaction, a bleaching product interacts with the pigment (melanin) in your hair, removing the color.
The products used for bleaching can contain several harsh chemicals. Hydrogen peroxide is often one of these. The effects of bleaching often lead to hair that’s less elastic and more prone to breaking.
Scalp bleaching involves applying the bleaching product directly to your scalp as opposed to just your hair. When done incorrectly, it can lead to side effects, like scalp irritation and chemical burns.
Keep reading to learn more about scalp bleaching, its potential risks, and how to do it safely.
On-scalp bleaching vs. off-scalp bleaching
You may have heard of on-scalp and off-scalp bleaching. What do these two terms mean?
On-scalp bleach is used for bleaching hair right up to the surface of your scalp. It can be used if you’re trying to color all of your hair or are touching up your roots. Because it touches your skin, it’s typically not as strong as off-scalp bleach.
Off-scalp bleach doesn’t come into contact with your scalp. It’s often used for applications like adding highlights. Because it doesn’t touch your scalp, off-scalp bleach is often a stronger formulation.
Now let’s take a look at how to try scalp bleaching safely. Below, we’ll discuss scalp bleaching both at a hair salon and at home.
Scalp bleaching at a salon
If you’d like to have scalp bleaching done at a salon, you can do the following to help ensure that it’s done safely:
- Get recommendations. If you have a friend or family member who’s had their hair bleached, ask them about their experience and whether they have a specific salon or stylist recommendation.
- Choose experience. When selecting a stylist, aim to find one who has a lot of experience in coloring hair. Some types of stylists, called colorists, specialize in hair color.
- Check certification. Make sure that your stylist is certified by your state’s cosmetology board. A certification indicates that a stylist has been trained to provide their services safely.
- Consider reviews. Once you have a salon in mind, it may be helpful to check out reviews online. Keep an eye out for complaints about side effects from hair treatments.
- Ask questions. If you have questions or concerns about scalp bleaching, call the salon to discuss them. It may also be helpful to schedule a consultation with a stylist before setting up your bleaching appointment.
Scalp bleaching at home
When scalp bleaching at home, follow the tips below to help prevent side effects like irritation or burns:
- Be kind to your scalp. Check the product label to make sure that it’s safe to use on your scalp. Additionally, hold off on bleaching if your scalp is already irritated, sunburned, or injured.
- Follow the product directions. Carefully read the directions beforehand, paying attention to text that says “Warning” or “Caution.” Stick to the directions while bleaching and never mix different products together.
- Wear gloves. Products used for bleaching can be harsh on your skin, so wear a pair of gloves during mixing, application, and rinsing.
- Have a timer on hand. Once you’ve applied the product, set a timer so that you know when it needs to be removed. Bleaching products may cause burns if they sit on your scalp for too long.
- Rinse thoroughly. After your timer goes off, make sure to rinse thoroughly with water.
- Don’t bleach eyebrows and eyelashes. It may be tempting to have your eyebrows and eyelashes match your newly bleached hair. However, bleaching these areas increases the risk that product could get into your eyes.
Whether at the salon or at home
Regardless of if you’re lightening your hair at a salon or at home, remember to:
- Put time between touch-ups. Hair that’s been bleached will eventually need to be touched up. Try to extend the amount of time between your touch-ups. This is particularly important when the air is dry.
- Only have one service at a time. Combining multiple services in a single session can lead to further hair damage. For example, don’t perm and color your hair at the same time.
- Condition. Bleaching can damage your hair. Conditioning can help to keep bleached hair smooth and flexible. Be sure to always apply conditioner to your hair after shampooing.
Scalp bleaching carries some potential risks, particularly when it’s done incorrectly. We’ll review each of them below.
Scalp bleach burn
Bleaching products contain harsh chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide, persulfates, and alkalizing agents. Because of this, it’s possible for bleaching to cause chemical burns on your scalp.
These burns can often be superficial, meaning that they’re located close to the surface of the skin. However, in some cases, deep chemical burns can occur. These types of burns can necessitate hospitalization.
Burns are more likely to occur after prolonged exposure to bleaching products. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that a product doesn’t sit on your scalp for longer than necessary.
If you have a chemical burn on your scalp, you may notice:
- skin redness or swelling
- pain in the affected area, which can range from mild to severe
- moistness or weeping in the affected area
Itchy, flaky scalp after bleaching hair
It’s also possible that the chemicals in bleaching products may cause scalp irritation in the form of contact dermatitis. If this happens, you may notice the following scalp symptoms after bleaching:
- skin redness or swelling
- patches of skin that appear flaky or scaly
- burning or stinging sensation
- blisters, which can weep, ooze, or crust
These types of reactions can happen quickly, often within minutes to hours after exposure to an irritant.
If you experience a chemical burn on your scalp, do the following three things as soon as possible:
- Immediately rinse the product from your scalp using water. Wear gloves to protect your hands.
- Continue flushing the affected area with cool running water for at least 10 minutes. Allow the water to run freely off of your scalp without pooling.
- Avoid rubbing, scratching, or wiping your scalp.
Minor chemical burns can be treated at home:
- Use a cool compress. Applying a cool compress to the affected area can help with pain and swelling.
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. These can also help to relieve pain and swelling. Examples include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Keep the affected area clean. Be sure to keep your scalp clean and watch for signs of infection. If you must touch the burned area, only do so with clean hands.
When to seek emergency care
Seek emergency care for chemical burns on the scalp that:
- appear deep
- are large, covering an area greater than 3 inches in size
- also impact your face or eyes
- show signs of infection
At the hospital, staff can help to appropriately clean and dress a severe or infected chemical burn. In some cases, skin grafts may be needed to repair severe burn damage.
If your scalp becomes irritated, itchy, or flaky due to scalp bleaching, you can do the following at home to help ease these symptoms:
- Rinse. Remove the bleaching product from your scalp by rinsing it out with water. Be sure to wear gloves to protect your hands.
- Don’t scratch. Scratching at an area that’s itchy or irritated can cause breaks in the skin, which can raise the risk of an infection.
- Apply a cool compress. Using a cool compress can help to soothe irritated skin. Standing in the shower and letting cool water run over your scalp may also help.
- Moisturize. Moisturizing your scalp can help with itching and flaking. There are many types of moisturizing products available. Additionally, there are some home remedies that you can use as well.
- Use a mild shampoo. While you’re recovering, choose a mild shampoo that’s less likely to cause scalp irritation.
- Try OTC medications. If your scalp is very itchy, try taking an OTC antihistamine, such as Benadryl. Additionally, applying an OTC corticosteroid cream may help to ease inflammation.
It’s a good idea to see a doctor if your symptoms:
- are severe
- affect a large area of your scalp
- don’t go away or start to get worse with at-home care
- indicate a bacterial infection, such as fever and blisters that ooze pus
A doctor may prescribe a topical or oral corticosteroid to help ease your symptoms. If an infection is present, they’ll prescribe a course of antibiotics.
If you have concerns about using hair dye or bleach, there are some other methods that you can try at home to help lighten your hair.
It’s important to note that the overall effect of these methods can depend on both the color and the texture of your hair. Because of this, you may consider trying them out on a small area before using them for large applications.
Combine lemon juice and water in a spray bottle. Spray into your hair until it’s wet. Allow your hair to dry naturally, preferably in the sun. The acid in lemon juice can be damaging, so be sure to shampoo and condition your hair afterward.
Note: This method may be best for hair that’s already naturally dark blonde or light brown. Using it on darker hair colors may cause your hair to appear brassy or orange.
Apple cider vinegar
Combine 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 cup water in a spray bottle. Spray into your hair until it’s wet, leaving in for no more than 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly.
In order to try this method out, brew a strong batch of chamomile tea. When it has cooled sufficiently, transfer the tea to a spray bottle.
Spray the tea into your hair, allowing it to saturate. After about 30 minutes, shampoo and condition your hair.
There are several different ways to use honey to lighten your hair. This is one of the simplest.
Add one to two tablespoons of honey to a cup of warm water, mixing well. Apply the mixture to your hair, allowing it to sit for about an hour. Then rinse it out of your hair.
Take about half a cup of your normal hair conditioner, adding ground cinnamon until a thick paste has formed. Apply this paste to your hair, allowing it to sit for up to 4 hours. Afterward, wash the paste out of your hair.
Scalp bleaching involves letting hair bleach sit directly on your scalp. It’s often used for lightening all of your hair or for touching up your roots.
It’s important to make sure that scalp bleaching is done properly. If not, you can experience potentially serious side effects, like scalp irritation or chemical burns.
Sometimes, side effects from scalp bleaching can be treated at home. In other cases, they may require medical attention. Be sure to seek immediate care for any burn that’s severe, covers a large area, or appears infected.