I Have Curly Hair Highlights On My 4C Curls – Here’s How It Happened


The last time I did anything drastic to my hair was about six years ago for my prom, when my mom painted streaks from a dye kit. The results weren’t terrible, but since then I’ve kept my 4C curls in a fairly rigid routine of monthly washes and frequent protective styles. As summer approaches, people often lean into the new season by lightening their locks a few shades to give that sun-kissed effect. Not wanting to be left out of the fun of the summer hair makeover, I started researching curly hair highlights and found myself booking an appointment within an hour to scroll Pinterest.

There are many different curl patterns and textures that fall into the curly hair category and each requires a different type of care, attention, and products. “As a colorist, you can’t go on autopilot and just toss foils in a standard pattern because the hair isn’t going to settle into segments,” says Lead Educator at Madison Reed. Shvonne Perkins. “You also have to consider the spacing. Even on the same head, these curl placements change from day to day.

The first step to ensuring a smooth journey to highlights is choosing the right salon and stylist to apply your new colored highlights. I went to Madison Reed Color Bar for my partial date. The salon specializes in professional salon hair coloring as well as professional level products that you can use at home. Madison Reed is one of the only hair color brands to be formulated with “Smart 8-free”, which means the products are free of ammonia, PPD, resorcinol, parabens, phthalates, gluten, of SLS and titanium dioxide – ingredients that can cause damage when used in high concentrations on the hair.

Before you book your appointment in anticipation of summer, here’s what you need to know about getting highlights on curly hair – how to prepare, what the process entails, and proper maintenance afterwards.

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How to prepare curly hair for highlights

Having unruly 4C hair, I’m used to professionals recommending me to enter detangled and sometimes even blow-dried hair for certain styles (hint: they’re not good stylists). In this case, Madison Reed’s stylist assured me that I had to go in with my curls in their natural state – literally, like the moment I was talking with her. “I paint over the highlights following the client’s curl pattern, deciphering where the sun will hit best and bounce off the color,” says Madison Reed Flatiron General Manager Jacquetta Taborn. Your stylist should also consider the condition in which you wear your hair most often when placing highlights to determine the best placement.

How Highlights Affect Curly Hair

If you’re getting highlights on your curly hair for the first time, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, there is always a risk of damage when coloring your hair (which is why choosing an experienced professional is essential), so if you already have existing damage, whether from heat or previous coloring, you’ll want to be sure to note this to your stylist. I had a bit of heat damage to the front of my hair, so Taborn was careful not to apply any activator in that area.

On curly hair, the damage often looks like a loss of the original curl pattern. “The first thing I think of is not to be too aggressive because you absolutely don’t want to deal with curly hair too much,” Arrojo Explain. “The over-processing of color on the curls effectively ‘relaxes’ the hair into a smoother texture. My first thought is always to stay within a few levels of the natural color to ensure that I maintain the integrity of the curl pattern. .

As for how the highlights actually look, “It’s critical to remember that color can and will appear differently on every texture,” says Lussiano. For this reason, it’s important to find a reference image of a hair texture that resembles your own – an image of modeled highlights on 3A hair may not look the same on 4B curls.

While all curly hair textures are suitable for highlights, some curl designs can be a bit more complex to apply highlights. “The ‘S’ and ‘C’ shaped curl patterns can make it harder to apply an even color than on straight hair; and, generally, the curlier the hair, the harder it is to follow the pattern for an even color,” says Arrojo. S-shaped and C-shaped patterns are usually found in hair types 3 and 4 – and that does not mean at all that these types of curls cannot achieve highlights, it is all the more vital that those who have these hair textures be sure to work with an experienced stylist who will take the time to apply the highlights in a way that complements the curl pattern.

Annie Blay

The process of curly hair strands

In his 20 years as a colorist, Taborn has honed the art of applying highlights to all hair textures down to a science, and says the whole process takes about two hours from start to finish. end (not including style). This isn’t the type of treatment you can do on your lunch break if you have curly hair – you’ll definitely want to allow two to four hours for your appointment.

Step 1:

Taborn began by untying my hair from its high puff and parting it slightly with his hands. Although she didn’t create distinct sections as she parted, she just gently stretched the hair for more visibility. We then explained exactly what look I was going for in terms of color and placement – it’s really helpful to come up with some sample photos of what you want your finished highlights to look like. Before we started, Taborn also asked if my hair had ever been colored, as that would affect how she would approach applying the highlights (more on that below).

2nd step:

The stylist then proceeded to hand paint Madison Reed Light Works activator onto my hair using a balayage technique (a freehand method of painting over highlights that gives a blended look). Taborn didn’t use foil on this appointment because I didn’t want my highlights to be so light, but depending on your hair color and how bright you want your highlights, the foil is. Foil can be used to help lift more color from your locks. “The presence of the previous permanent color and the darkness level of the shade will impact the level of balayage highlights achievable with Light Works,” says Madison Reed’s site.

During this stage of the process, I learned that applying highlights does not add color to your hair, rather it takes away or lifts the color. The Light Works activator is formulated with hydrogen peroxide, which is the main ingredient that does the lifting.

After painting the activator on my curls, I waited about 20 minutes for the color to lift. Depending on how bright you want your locks to be, you can wait a little longer, but Taborn recommends 30 minutes max to avoid damage. For those who want to go super light, sheets can be used to speed up this hold time and help lift the pigments.

Step 3:

Then I was taken to the salon wash station where the stylist carefully washed off the activator and applied a toner.

Annie Blay

The toner is intended to neutralize the harshness of the color and remove the brassiness. In the image above, I was a little concerned about the brightness of the highlights, but the stylist assured me that once she applied the toner, it would dull the color. Madison Reed offers different toners depending on the undertones of highlights you’re looking for – from Warm Honey and Cool Toffee to Cool Vanilla and Warm Caramel; your stylist will be able to determine which toner to use based on the reference image you are using and how you communicate wanting your highlights to look like.

Step 4:

The toner stayed in my hair for about 25 minutes before washing out. My hair was then washed with Madison Reed Bonding Building Cleansing Treatment, which is meant to repair weak or broken bonds in your strands while gently cleansing, followed by Color Protecting Conditioner which provides UV protection and locks in color to help prevent color fading and is also formulated with keratin to strengthen and repair damaged hair.

Annie Blay

After a shampoo and conditioner, we moved on to the styling part of the appointment. At Madison Reed, you can work with the stylist to style your newly colored hair any way you want, but a traditional blowout is the most common solution and it was my go-to style.

Annie Blay

Caring for curly hair strands

Once you step out of the salon (hoping to love your new hair), it’s important to take care of your look to make sure your locks stay vibrant and your locks stay healthy. “Using shampoos and conditioners recommended by your colorist is a MUST if you want to protect your color investment and your curls,” says Illeisha Lussiano stylist and founder of the famous New York hair salon The Way.

I left Madison Reed Salon with the shampoo and conditioner duo used on my hair during the appointment and was instructed to follow my normal washing routine and schedule (every two weeks) using these products. It’s especially important to be consistent with conditioning your hair. “Condition your hair more or less every day. Conditioner is essential for adding moisture, especially for curly hair,” says Gina Arrojomaster colorist at ARROJO Soho. A great leave-in conditioner will be key to maintaining hydration and conditioning on a regular basis.


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