Home hair-highlighting kits are not for the faint of heart. Highlighting hair is a more difficult and time- consuming process than single-process color, even for professionals. But as long as you're not looking for anything drastic and simply want to brighten up your look, there's no reason why you can't do your own highlights at home.
If you don't want to change your base hair color -- or if you want more dramatic highlights -- a highlighting kit is the way to go. For a reliable, affordable home-highlighting option, reviews recommend a longtime favorite: Revlon Color Effects Frost & Glow (Est. $10). It's the top-rated highlighting kit at MakeupAlley.com (where some members say they've been happily using it for over a decade) and TotalBeauty.com.
"Though they recommend having someone help you pull your hair through the cap, readers say this is their go-to product for that perfect 'sun-kissed look,'" says TotalBeauty.com, where Frost & Glow earns a spot on the "12 Best Hair Color Products" list.
Frost & Glow comes in two shades: Blonde (for blonde to light brown hair) and Honey (for medium to dark brown hair). The kit comes with a plastic, hole-studded cap and plastic hook. You put the cap on your hair, pull strands through the holes (this can take a while, depending on how many highlights you want), paint the bleach onto the strands, wait until your highlights are as pale as you like (up to an hour), rinse, and then use the included shampoo and conditioner.
Although it can be time-consuming, users say this gives the nicest highlights of any at-home kit. Revlon's highlighting bleach is ammonia-free, so users say it doesn't stink or damage their hair. As with any hair bleach, users say it's important to leave the bleach on long enough to lighten hair to a honey or blond shade (rather than an under-bleached orange color).
If, on the other hand, you'd like to color your whole head plus add highlights, L'Oréal Paris Couleur Experte (Est. $14) combines a permanent base color (there are 15 shades) with a coordinating shade of highlights for a two-step process. Users are impressed with the results -- it's a top pick at TotalBeauty.com, Ulta.com and Amazon.com.
InStyle magazine names L'Oréal Paris Couleur Experte its "Best Highlight Kit" for 2015. Editors like the kit's highlight applicator brush, which fits on your fingertip like a thimble for "foolproof" highlight placement: "'Applying high lights is the hardest thing to do at home, and this makes it easier,' says L.A. hairstylist Charles Dujic, who uses it for 'fantastic results' when he does quick fixes outside the salon."
Satisfaction, it appears, depends on proper usage. Its rating at MakeupAlley.com isn't very impressive, and some users say their highlights turned out orange. But other users point out that that's what happens if you don't leave the highlight product on your hair long enough. They say they left it on for the recommended time on the box and wound up with nice highlights. Amazon.com users, on the other hand, seem largely happy, and Couleur Experte earns a 4.5 star score there based on roughly 465 reviews.
Clairol Nice 'n Easy (Est. $7) is another hair color plus highlights option. It earns high marks from users at Ulta.com and Amazon.com. Most say the one-step kit is easy to use and really does deliver multidimensional color, although a few users say they didn't notice any highlights.
In a leading expert test of drugstore hair dye kits, Clairol Nice 'n Easy left hair darker than most of the other 9 contenders, and the highlights showed up as uneven streaks. However, it did a very good job covering grays, and proved easy to use. Good Housekeeping names Nice 'n Easy one of the best dyes for blond hair in particular, with shiny, fade-resistant color.
It's important to note that these permanent hair colors contain ammonia, which allows for more dramatic color change, but it can have a strong odor. If you prefer a less obnoxious scent from an ammonia-free hair color, demi-permanent dyes are a great alternative (see our Best Non-Permanent Hair Color section).
Although most hair color products are aimed at women, you'll find a handful of them specifically for men. Of course, men can also use hair products that are marketed to women. It all comes down to preference. Hair dyes targeted to men, such as Just for Men, tend to be simpler to use. For example, Just for Men Original Formula (Est. $20 for a pack of three), Just for Men Touch of Gray (Est. $8) and Just for Men Mustache and Beard (Est. $23 for a pack of three) all take only five minutes, and all are customer favorites at sites such as Amazon.com and Target.com. They're available in 11, four and nine shades, respectively.
While all of the Just for Men products get good user reviews, there have also been reports of users suffering itching, burning or allergic reactions after using them. Like most hair dyes, Just for Men warns users to do a skin allergy patch test before every use. Allergic reactions can happen, even if you've used the same product in the past with no problems.
Grecian Formula (Est. $7) works differently. Instead of dyeing your hair all at once, "The 'Grecian Formula' approach uses lead acetate, which darkens with exposure to air," WebMD.com explains. "Hair is colored gradually, so you can stop when you've achieved the effect you want."
Grecian Formula gets mostly positive reviews from users at Amazon.com, who say it does darken their hair when used as directed. Grecian Formula's instructions say to comb it through your hair and leave it on, styling your hair as usual. "Apply daily until hair reaches desired shade. To maintain your natural look, apply once or twice a week thereafter."
The use of lead acetate in Grecian Formula does raise some concerns with some users. The National Institutes of Health classifies lead acetate as a probable human carcinogen. It's banned from cosmetics in Canada and the European Union, where it's also classified as toxic to reproduction.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration still allows lead acetate in hair dyes. "But because of the dangers of lead exposure if these products are misused, lead acetate hair colorings must have a special warning on the label," the FDA says. The warning cautions users to keep the dye out of children's reach, not to use on a cut or abraded scalp or on facial or body hair, stop using if skin gets irritated, keep out of eyes, follow directions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use.