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Is Developer Bleach? Are Bleach and Developer the Same Thing?

Cute African American female with medium brown hair after using a high-lift hair color treatment on her 4A curls.

Developer is one of the most essential ingredients in a bleaching or dyeing kit, though not everyone understands its purpose.

Some people assume that bleach and developer are the same things.

Could they possibly be right?

In this article, we’ll answer the question “Is developer bleach?” so you can further refine your hair dyeing knowledge. 

Is Developer Bleach?

No, developer is not the same as bleach. When you buy a bleaching kit, you’ll notice a few different items in the box. Two of the most important include bleaching powder and developer. These two need to be used together to lighten your hair, but developer and bleach are not the same.

A black girl with dark brown hair wearing casual weekend clothes with a silver necklace and diamonds earrings.

What Is Developer and What Does It Do?

Hair developer is a cream or liquid mainly composed of hydrogen peroxide, conditioners, and silicones. It lifts the hair’s cuticle, which allows the color or bleach to get into each strand.

Several developer strengths are available, and these strengths are signified by volume levels – the higher the volume, the more lift you’ll get (more on that later). 

The peroxide in the developer also affects the natural color of your hair – it can lighten your natural shade by several levels.

If you remove any permanent color applied to your hair, you’ll notice the hair underneath is a lighter color than usual – that’s because of the hair developer.

This lightening ability also helps the bleaching powder do its job when stripping your natural color pigment from your hair.

Black girl with blonde highlights after using bleach powder and 30 volume developer on her dark brown hair.

How Developer is Different from Bleach

When people talk about bleaching their hair, they are referring to both the bleaching powder and the developer. Both are needed to lift natural pigment by several shades. 

When you apply bleach powder on your hair alone, it does absolutely nothing. For the bleaching powder to work, it needs to be activated. This is where the developer comes in.

The hydrogen peroxide in the developer combines with the bleach, activating it so it can lighten your hair.

Can Developer Be Used As Bleach?

Technically speaking, you can use developer on its own to lighten your hair. It won’t work as well as when combined with bleach, though. The developer only lightens your hair a shade or two.

If you’re going for significant lightening, you’ll need several developer applications to reach the shade you want.

Another downside to using a developer alone to lift your hair color is that the resulting shade will be somewhat brassy.

You’ll need to use a toner or a purple shampoo to remove those orange tones. It will take a great deal of work to get a decent color result this way.

Pretty African American woman wearing a light orange shirt and blue jeans with light brown color-treated hair.

Bleach Alone vs. Developer and Bleach

As we mentioned above, bleaching powder doesn’t do any of the color lightening on its own. The developer is the activator.

While the developer can lighten hair up to two shades, adding bleach to the mix lightens up to five levels or more.

The resulting shade of the combined products is much easier to work with. With such light-colored hair, you can then apply almost any color you want.

You can choose soft blondes, bright reds, or even cool pastels. You won’t get the same options when using the developer alone.

A lady with dark hair used powder bleach on her curls and a conditioning treatment to prevent hair shaft damage.

Choosing the Right Hair Developer

One thing to consider when bleaching your hair is which developer to use. There are several volumes to consider for this process. The higher the volume, the faster the product works, though you also risk more damage.

Hair Color Developer: How to Pick the Right One 2021

5 Volume Developer

5 volume developer is the weakest option and is usually used with non-permanent dyes. It barely lifts the hair cuticle layer, delivering a very minimal color deposit that won’t cover grays.

Due to its light activation, it is mainly used for glazes or toners. It can be used with bleach for very slight hair lightening on the most fragile hair.

10 Volume Developer

The next level is 10 volume, which offers more lift and higher strand penetration. Like 5 volume developer, it doesn’t provide much gray coverage or lift but can be used with permanent dyes. When combined with bleach, it can offer much more lift (up to 4 levels). 

20 Volume Developer

20 volume is the most used developer strength for coloring and bleaching. It lifts the color a shade or two when used with permanent hair dye. It also offers very good gray coverage. 

When used with bleaching powder, 20 volume developers can lift up to 9 levels.

It opens the cuticle and keeps it open during the entire bleaching or coloring process for consistent results. You can even use 20 volume bleach on your scalp without significant irritation (in some cases).

30 Volume Developer

When using permanent hair color, 30 volume is a good option for lifting the hair 2 to 4 shades. It works well on color-resistant or gray hair.

For bleaching, 30 volume works quite quickly. Though this developer strength speeds up the lightening process, it can also cause damage if left on too long.

The downside to this high volume is that it shouldn’t be used with heat.

Hot air and foils increase the speed of the lightening process, which is pointless for this developer. Open-air processing and constant monitoring are best for limited damage.

40 Volume Developer

40 volume developer offers 3 to 4 levels of color lift when used with permanent hair color. You can also use it with open-air processing methods, such as ombre or balayage.

These hair techniques don’t use heat or foils, so they are safe to use with such a high-volume developer. It is somewhat dangerous to use with bleach, though, requiring constant monitoring.

Black female sitting on her sofa relaxing while researching how to cover grey hair with permanent hair dye.

50 Volume Developer

50 volume developer can be used only for a select few bleaching techniques, including balayage, palm painting, etc. That’s because it’s extremely powerful.

It isn’t the best option for any other lightening processes (like foils or heated applications). A high-volume developer works very quickly, so it should only be used by professionals to avoid frying your hair. 

Does Developer Damage Hair?

Whenever you use a hair developer, there is the possibility of damage to your hair, depending on the developer strength and process you’re using.

Leaving high-volume developers on for even a few extra minutes can cause extreme damage. The hair will be brittle and dry, needing extra care to keep it even somewhat healthy. In the worst cases, your hair could fall out in your hands. 

When Developer Is Necessary

A developer is necessary any time you want to truly alter your natural hair color. Lower volume developers give your cuticle the lift needed to let the color pigments into the hair shaft.

The mid to high volumes are better for extreme lightening. It enables you to go from dark to blonde hair or try fashion colors that wouldn’t usually show up on your natural hair.

Cute black with a great smile wearing diamond earrings and dark brown balayage no-lift hair color.

How to Use Developer

Hair developer isn’t meant to be used on its own, though it can be used without bleach or color for minimal lightening. The following steps can help you with this process.

  • Combine ingredients. Pour equal parts shampoo and 20 volume developer into a clean, dry container. Mix well.
  • Apply the mixture. Apply the mixture liberally to your damp hair. Saturate your strands for adequate coverage.
  • Let it sit. Allow the mixture to soak into your strands for up to a half-hour. 
  • Rinse. Rinse the developer mixture from your hair using warm water. 
  • Condition. Your hair will be dry afterward, so give it some love with a conditioner or deep conditioner. 

If you’re using a developer with bleaching powder or coloring, follow the instructions included with the supplies.

Related Articles

A hair developer is also called an activator since bleach or hair color would be ineffective without it. It is a must to lift the cuticle so the other products can do their jobs.

Though it can be used alone for slight lightening, the developer works best when combined with other products. Doing so increases the likelihood that you’ll get the color you’ve been dreaming of all along.