Always a sucker for cute hair colors, I’d been coloring my hair red ever since I was 16 years old, roughly half my life. I never got bored with it, though, because there always seemed to be new hair ideas I hadn’t tried yet. Over the years, I cycled through what felt like every red there is: The Lindsay Lohan. The Shirley Manson. The Christina Hendricks. The Rihanna. (That last one was a bit unfortunate.)
But last summer, I finally felt ready for a change. I wanted to make a change from red to pink hair. This felt like both a big and a small decision—pink is, well, pink, but in terms of the color spectrum, it’s a next-door neighbor to red. The switch to pink hair would be a cinch, right?
So wrong. Turns out, if you want a vibrant “unicorn” color that’s more permanent than hair chalk, the process can be quite involved. Case in point: nearly seven months after my initial salon appointment, my hair is just now the color I wanted.
Here’s what I learned about how to get pink hair, regardless of what color hair you’re starting with.
Pre-lightened or naturally blond hair is the best canvas for whichever pigment you choose. Ask your stylist about semi-permanent colors. These are pretty low-commitment, as they don’t use developer and will wash out in 12 shampoos or less.
If you want to add pastel tones to your blond hair without tinting it, try a color-depositing shampoo and conditioner. (There are great ones by Bumble and bumble, Aveda, Davines, Bleach London, and others.) The pigment will build the more you use them. James Rosko, my colorist at Mane Space in downtown Chicago, even suggested leaving the conditioner in dry hair overnight for a punch of pink—I used the Bleach London Rosé Conditioner—which not only worked, but made my hair suuuuper soft.
I was very resistant to this at first, despite hearing it from multiple stylists. It seemed like such an extreme step! But think about it: if you took a marker and drew on a white piece of paper, the color would show much truer than if you were drawing on a darker piece of paper. It’s the same idea here.
So I eventually relented. Chemically speaking, this step was the most challenging. I had all that red dye built up in my hair, and it wasn’t going to become blond in one pass. There was a lot of strawberry-blond in-between-ness that went down over these seven months. (At James’s suggestion, I used a brightening shampoo formulated for blond and silver hair to help expedite the process.)
Even if you’re not starting with red hair, you might have the same issue if your hair isn’t currently a lighter tone. The cooler the blond, the better, and lots of hair colors can’t get there right away. The other crux of this issue is that you can’t lighten your hair too frequently—you’d damage the living daylights out of it. We had to stagger my highlight appointments every eight weeks or so, which is part of why it took so long to get pink hair.
Above: me about halfway through the process. As you can see, there was still a lot of red in my hair.
Yes, I had to commit to balayage to get my hair to a brighter shade of pink. But if you just want something really subtle, you can forgo highlights. Before going blond, I had my hair colored with a demi-permanent mix of red and magenta that made a lovely raspberry-toned mélange of red and pink hair. It washed out pretty quickly, but it was fun while it lasted. Ask your stylist about trying this with a tone that works with your current color. (Blues, greens, and purples can create a pretty cool tint on darker hair, for instance.)
These “unicorn” tones just don’t last the way traditional hair colors do. So whether you go blond first or not, you’ll have to see your colorist pretty frequently if you want to maintain the look. (Which also means you can try new cute hair colors each time if you get bored.) If you do go blond first, the good news is that highlights have a lot of staying power. Once you get the blond you need, you’ll only have to refresh this base every three to four months. And remember: those color-depositing shampoos and conditioners are your friends. Use them often—they definitely help.
With that said, I’m happy I went pink. YOLO. (Unless of course you’re an actual unicorn, in which case I’d like to think you get to live forever.)
Midpoint photos courtesy of Emily Prendergast for Michelle Starbuck Designs. All other photos by Grant Walsh, Groupon.
This story was originally written in 2015 and has since been reformatted by our editors.