What to know before you dye, and the best products for Asian hair
“Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility.” -Fleabag
As a woman who has never dyed her hair now suddenly facing an aggressive onslaught of greys, I have many questions—and need to make important decisions. Do I embrace the greys? Or do I, as a self-respecting Asian, dye it immediately and pretend it’s still my natural color? How will the dye affect my hair? Will it feel different? Will this new dye life require special shampoos?
I asked hair color specialist Douglas Cornwall, the man responsible for the locks of fashion influencers like Tina Leung and The Haute Pursuit’s Vanessa Hong, about Asian hair and its relationship to dye. “As with all ethnicities, every head of hair is unique and hard to generalize. The typical rule of thumb is that Asian hair is made of a thicker and more resistant fiber—however, I’ve also dealt with very fine hair that is extremely strong and very thick hair that is fragile,” he says. “Typically, a protein-rich diet with lots of omega-3s (found in fish and dark veggies) produce the best hair in my experience. Copy that on maintaining strong “virgin” hair. But what about if you’re considering the bleach? “Everyone should be going to a colorist who uses clay-based bleach with bond protectors inside,” advises Cornwall. “Whittemore House Hair Paint has long been my favorite lightener, and was actually developed with Asian hair in mind.”
After you’ve done the deed, it’s crucial to upkeep with your hair’s health—to strip your close-to-black hair to blonde can be a traumatic experience for your head, after all. “Using good home care is an absolute must for bleached or color-treated Asian hair,” says Cornwall. “For the most natural product on the market, I recommend Intelligent Nutrients Pure Luxe shampoo and Conditioner. It’s a certified organic line from the creator of Aveda, and it has safe ingredients. For the most luxurious scent, immediate repair, and shine, I recommend Iles Formula by Wendy Iles. It’s a simple three-step care system of shampoo, conditioner, and finishing serum that when used together create that ‘celebrity magazine cover’ shine and texture,” he continues. “To control color at home, right now I rely on Christophe Robin baby blonde conditioning mask. Unlike most purple/silver shampoos and conditioners, this one does not create unwanted color deposit and actually leaves the hair hydrated.”
Now that I’ve got the expert’s take, I turned to a few of my favorite Asian Rapunzels—the treatment fiends, the reformed bleachers, the anti-dyers, and those in between—for their hair care routines and the products they swear by.
Vanessa Hong, fashion consultant & influencer
“I use an Intelligent Nutrients shampoo and conditioner called PureLuxe Replenishing. I also use PurePlenty Nourishing Scalp and Strand Serum. I don’t really brush my hair, and don’t use a special pillow. I just don’t apply any heat to my hair at all (unless I’m on set and someone has to do it). I wash hair once a week. Honestly, eating a plant-based diet is helpful for all skin/hair things.”
Leaf Greener, Fashion Consultant
“I don’t dye my hair anymore. Right now my hair is my natural color. But I used to dye my hair pink, purple, red, orange, and I was even beige-blonde for three years. Products-wise, I love to use Straight Arrow Inc’s Original Mane ‘n Tail shampoo and conditioner.
“I half-dry my hair with a Dyson and I use this electric Satin Hair 7 IONTEC by Braun to brush my hair. I travel with it everywhere.”
Cynthia Leung, Fashion Publiscist
“I don’t dye my hair. The last time I dyed it was pretty extreme though, like bleached out, blonde, red, streaked—it was a period of hair wilding for two to three years in the ‘90s. For shampoo and conditioner—and a lot of people have asked me this because my hair is hippie-long—I use Kiehl’s Amino Acid shampoo and conditioner. It always does the trick, especially the conditioner, which I find is just the right strength and creaminess for my hair.
“While my hair is still wet, I use a wide-tooth comb—a wooden one from Germany or a buffalo horn one from China—to comb through from the ends up. I rub Aesop Violet Leaf Hair Balm into my scalp for flyaways while still wet. I sometimes use Argan Moroccan hair oil, the cheap one from the drugstore, for the ends and all over for a bit of shine. Then, I let my hair dry naturally. I NEVER use a hair dryer. I am half hippie.”
“I don’t take any special vitamins for hair but I eat fish a lot, like almost every day. Does that count? Also, I wash my hair every two days, not every day.”
stephanie Tran, bloomberg photo editor & Co-founder of The new Jock
“I don’t dye my hair; I made a decision recently to let my hair change color naturally. We'll see how long it lasts!
“I use JR Liggett's hair bar. It lathers so quickly and is made of 100% oils, no chemicals. Love the subtle rose oil scent. For conditioner, I either use a combination of apple cider vinegar and water (sometimes I'll add an essential oil for scent), or I'll deep condition with Hask's Keratin Protein packets. I also alternate the above with products from my hairdresser, Joey Silvestera's line, Five Wits.
“I started getting smoothing treatments with [my hair stylist] Maura at Blackstones a few years ago. It was life-changing for me and really helped me minimize the amount of time and product I have to use. In the past I had to use oils to weigh down my frizzy hair, but now I can wash and go. I do, though, still occasionally use a hat to ‘set’ my hair, but that's about it. If I have time and feel like I need to put myself together more, I'll use anything I have on-hand—coconut oil, Everyday Oil, olive oil. It's about not having to buy more stuff, and these household items I already have work great.
“I'll use a wide-toothed comb in the shower when I condition, and occasionally I will use a Mason Pearson to brush, but brushing is rare. Collagen powder has done wonders for my hair growth (and my nails)! I put it in my coffee or smoothie every morning, and I only use one scoop (though they suggest two).”
Jade Lai, Designer
“I love Davines shampoo and conditioner. It’s really the brand that gets my hair really soft and bouncy and a bit wavy. My sister also introduced me to a brand called 3 More Inches. It’s from the UK and the pre-shampoo conditioner mask is great. It took me a while to get hooked, maybe because you have to wear it for at least an hour before shampooing. Who has the time!!! But now that I am more flexible with my time, man, that mask has transformed my hair. It’s so soft and great!!
“I also love Moroccanoil Treatment. I am a sucker for the smell and the texture after. I do think my hair changed after having a baby, or maybe it’s because I’m older now; it feels kind of stiffer. The aforementioned hair products have really helped me. But besides those treatments, I don’t do much to my hair. I am a wash-and-go kind of gal and love some body in my hair. I’ve actually been contemplating a digital perm which some of my Asian friends have done…”