Truth be told, they are the trickiest things to pull off at home. But with a little practice, and trial and error, I've saved hundreds (possibly thousands) of bucks on highlighting appointments—and you can too.
1. Ace your base.
Choose a kit that's labeled for your starting point rather than your desired highlight hue, because the latter can mean different results for different hair colors, says White. (So, for example, you'll want it to say "for brown hair" instead of "caramel highlights.") Whether your kit comes with a cap and spatula (like the one I love, Revlon Frost&Glow by ColorSilk, a brush (Clairol Nice 'N Easy HairPainting, $11, at drugstores), or a fingertip applicator (L'Oreal Paris Superior Preference Ombre Touch, all will lift pigments out of the hair, taking strands a little sunnier with each use.
2. Don't skip the strand test.
Brunette hair lifts in stages: brown, red, orange, then yellow. And the time lapse between blazing orange and beautiful butterscotch can be minutes. That's why the strand test—although tedious—is critical here. Follow the kit's test instructions, and if you like what you see, use that tested time for the rest of your head. To go lighter, reapply the mixture for another five minutes. But repeat the steps no more than twice, or your streaks will be too light and look unnatural.
3. Toss the plastic cap.
The sun doesn't tint hair in a spaghetti-like pattern, and that's what using a cap—like the one in my favorite kit—will offer. "When you pull strings of hair through the tiny holes, you can't guarantee where that hair is coming from. Plus, the bleaching cream may seep underneath the cap, creating a splotchy mess," White says. And while you're at it, skip the skinny plastic spatula, too—it won't saturate the entire circumference of each strand. "Use an adult toothbrush for front pieces and a baby toothbrush for the back, or paintbrushes in one-inch to quarter-inch sizes," says White.
4. Streak the right way.
Part your hair as you normally do, so you can clearly see which strands are face-framing (a side-parter will highlight differently than a center-parter).
(a) Paint on the mixture to one-inch sections of dry hair in the front, keeping it about one centimeter from the scalp.
(b) Gradually thin streaks to half an inch in the middle of your head.
(c) Apply to quarter-inch pieces in back land underlayers.
(d) Don't be too strict about placement; the coolest highlights aren't evenly spaced or perfectly symmetrical.
5. Add back moisture.
Leave the dye on for the amount of time determined in the strand test (the pieces you did first will also be finished first), then rinse each section well. Shampoo, then deep-condition (highlighting can leave hair feeling dry and brittle). Try Aussie 3 Minute Miracle Color conditioning treatment.
A product like John Frieda Colour Refreshing Gloss mimics what the pros use to soften highlights and add shine. Go for golden or copper, depending on the tone you're after.