At-Home Highlights

Q: I don't want to spend a lot of money on highlights, so I'm considering using a leave-in lightening spray this summer. How effective are these products -- and what's the best way to use them?

A: Highlighting sprays will subtly lighten hair, but how well they'll work on your hair depends on what kind of results you're after, says Angelo David, owner of the Angelo David Salon in New York City. Chances are, these sprays won't give you a head of professional-looking highlights, and if you have very dark hair, it will be hard to get true blond streaks. (In fact, you'll probably end up with reddish or bronzy streaks.) But if you have light hair already and are just looking to brighten -- not change -- your color, then a highlighting spray is an effective, inexpensive option. Here, David's four tips on how to make the process goof-proof:

Do a strand test. Pull a 1/2- to 1-inch section of hair from underneath (e.g., behind your ear or along the nape of your neck) and saturate it with the spray. Then, blow it dry according to the product directions. This will give you a preview of what the spray will do to your hair's hue and, most important, will tell you if you'll get the color you want.

Be extra-selective. Based on the hairstyle you have and the look you want, decide carefully where to put your highlights -- don't just spray haphazardly. As a general rule, highlights toward the front of your head and around your face should be thinner and closer together than the ones in the back. If you're having trouble managing the spray, pull your hair back into a ponytail, separate the strands you want to highlight from the rest of your hair, and then dip a new toothbrush into the solution, using the brush to "paint" the highlights on.

Remember that it's easier to add than to take away. After you've done your test strand and figured out where you want to place the highlights, start small and do just a few highlights the first time (about one-third of the amount you imagine you want). Then, see what you think of the results (you should be able to see them as soon as your hair dries); you can add more if you want. Once you're happy with the look of your new streaks, you can use the spray as often as needed to maintain the highlights -- and/or touch up the roots.

Condition regularly. Dried-out strands are a possible side effect any time you color your hair, and these sprays are no exception (which is also why you should never use undiluted lemon juice, straight from the lemon, to highlight your hair; because it's so acidic, the juice can strip moisture from your strands and leave them dry and brittle). In addition to a daily conditioner, use a deep conditioner once or twice weekly; we like Garnier Fructis Fortifying Deep Conditioner 3-Minute Masque with vitamins B3 and B6 ($4; at drugstores).

3 Highlighters We Love

Try these budget-conscious editor favorites -- and get sun-kissed color in no time.

  • John Frieda Beach Blonde Lemon Lights Fresh Squeezed Highlighter with lemon juice in a no-mess gel ($6.50; at drugstores)
  • Sun-In Super Spray-In Hair Lightener with aloe, marigold and flaxseed ($5; at drugstores)
  • Clairol Touch of Sun highlighting spray with lemon extract ($4; at drugstores)
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