All It Took to Get These Subtle Highlights was $7 and a Little Courage

I used an inexpensive, buildable hair lightener for DIY balayage, and you can, too!
Publish date:
May 14, 2015
highlights, tutorial, L'oreal, budget beauty, hair lighteners

Lately, Pinterest has taken over all of my free time. Seriously, I mean all of it. I was late coming back from lunch many a time in the last few weeks because I was pinning so hard.

Above all the refashioning ideas, Martha Stewart’s cakes, and other waistline-expanding but beautifully styled recipes, the hair and beauty tags have totaled the most time. It’s all the balayage, you know? The slightly over-filtered pictures of long, flowing, beachy waves with sun-kissed highlights that look natural, even though you know they aren’t. (How many natural blonds are there, really?)

I got the hair-dye itch, after being clean for over six years. I love my virgin hair, but I needed the naturally-lightened-looking locks that say, “I’ve been vacationing somewhere exotic and warm” when I’ve really just been curled up on the couch binging on Daredevil with my cat.

But, being of low budget and lower hair-dyeing confidence, I didn’t quite know what to do. I knew bleach wasn’t an option (I would probably end up like that eyeliner meme, but where I just add more and more bleach until I turned into Draco Malfoy), so I did what any self-respecting beauty lover would do: I headed to Target.

After a good 20-minute peruse of the hair dye aisle, I found the L’Oréal Paris Summer Lights Hair Lightening Gelee. My inner-child screamed with glee! I would finally have my Sun-In moment (which, by the way, is actually still a thing, and I’m pretty sure they haven’t changed the packaging since the '90s).

But unlike Sun-In, which is a relatively unpredictable spray, Summer Lights is a gelee—very fancy stuff. It’s a heavily scented gel-like conditioner that really sticks to the strands you want it on. This is the reason it is perfect for your DIY, low-risk balayage.


As with any hair-dyeing experiment you should patch-test. Plop a little gelee behind an ear, let it dry, and see what it does. You also should patch-test a strand of your hair. Because I’m working with completely dye-free hair, my results may differ from yours if you already have color-treated hair.

Step 1: Section & Tease

To get the highlights to be naturally uneven-looking, you have to have your individual hair strands at different lengths. It’s just too hard to spread out the product unevenly on specific strands.

I sectioned out the hair below the tops of my ears and ratted the bejesus out of it.

Step 2: Get Gelee-ing.

L’Oréal’s instructions dictate that you should wear gloves, but they don’t actually give you any, so use whatever gloves you have on hand (or don’t—I’m not your mom).

Pull out individual sections of hair to apply your Summer Lights. Saturate your chosen highlights with the gelee.

I wanted my ends to have a little lightness, too, so I ran the remainder on the bottom couple of inches of my hair.

Repeat steps one and two for the rest of your hair. At this point, you could just let it dry, or blow-dry it, and call it a day. But this is a gradual product, so you probably won’t see a lot of change with just one application. That is actually what I started with because I was a big scaredy cat. For more noticeable results, keep applying the product when it's dry. It’s super-easy to feel for your chosen highlights because the gelee dries a bit crispy, but if you want to section them out with strips of foil. I went whole hog with this on a day when I was spring-cleaning and wasn’t leaving the apartment so it was no big deal that I had a bird’s nest instead of hair for a few hours.

Step 4: Detail Work

If you want more dramatic or noticeable highlights, it will take a little more finagling. After getting all of my hair the color I wanted it, I decided I wanted something more noticeable on the very top layer.

I chose a few thicker highlights and applied the gelee, reapplying as it dried; so where all the bottom layers of my hair had three applications total, these few pieces got five.

Step 5: Clean Up

So you are at the end of your balayage journey. Scaring your neighbors with your lemon-scented beehive for a few hours was all worth it.

To check color or to make yourself look more put together, just brush out your hair. The Summer Lights packaging says it's a leave-in product, but with a few layers it gets a little gross, so I suggest just washing it right out.

I’m loving my new color! I’m ready for picnics and the poolside, or, ya know, just finding a new show to replace Daredevil.

  • Do you lighten your hair for summer?
  • How DIY hair-dye experienced are you?
  • Are you as obsessed with Daredevil as I am?