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Does Developer Damage Hair?

by Gabbi

Developer is an essential tool used in hair coloring, but it’s often an overlooked product. Applying color or bleach to your hair alone won’t provide flawless results because you need to mix it with a developer to activate your color mixture.

In addition, developer isn’t as exciting to use as color or bleach, which is why many may neglect its significance. However, you can’t eliminate your current hair color or achieve your desired color without a developer, and your bleach will stay dry. 

Developer is a cream hydrogen peroxide product that is mixed with hair dye and bleach. It’s available in various volumes and strengths to help reach your desired outcome. It’s required to lift your cuticle to alter the pigment of your strands. 

However, does developer damage your hair? Like most chemical services, a developer can harm the hair if applied too often or misused. Developer is less likely to harm your strands if you use it correctly or follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Without a developer, it can be impossible to achieve your desired color unless you choose a temporary or semi-permanent dye that only deposits pigment. It’s crucial to understand the components of hair developer before your next color service. 

What Is Developer? 

What is a hair developer? Hair developers are often a cream product that’s used with hair dye or bleach (we love this one from Wella).

Mixing these components to activate your hair color and bleach is necessary. Without this product, you may not achieve your desired results.

Developer contains hydrogen peroxide that helps activate your color and helps lift your cuticle. If you don’t lift the hair’s cuticle, it will be impossible to saturate your strands with your new desired hue. 

You can buy a developer separately or it may be included in a box dye kit.

Why Do You Need Developer? 

Developer is required to lift the hair’s cuticle, eliminate your current hair color, and saturate your strands with a new shade. This product must be used while applying specific color formulas like permanent, demi-permanent, or bleach.

The strength of your developer can also have a heavy impact on your color service. For example, without this component, bleach will remain dry and cannot lighten your hair. Likewise, permanent hair color will have difficulty penetrating the hair shaft.

What Does Each Level Of Developer Mean?

Developers are sold at volumes, which determine their strength and concentration. In addition, how potent your developer is will be determined by how much hydrogen peroxide is used to formulate this product. 

Hydrogen peroxide is what helps your hair lift and get lighter during the processing time. Some high volume developers may even help your hair reach a higher level of color. The most common developer volumes are 10, 20, 30, and 40 vol. 

However, the strength of developer can also be indicated by percentage, often ranging from 3-12%. 

10 Vol

The lowest and mildest developer is 10 volume. This developer will lift your hair one level during your color service. It also has the lowest strength of 3%. A 10 vol developer is ideal for maintaining natural colors, and to mix with toners and glazes.

It’s unlikely that a 10 vol developer will lighten your hair. In addition, there is a lower chance of 10 vol developer damaging your hair because it’s mild. It’s also great for gray coverage and aids in depositing color into the strands.

20 Vol

The next concentration of developers is 20 vol. This volume of developer is the most commonly used because it will help lift the hair more than one level without ruining the integrity of your strands. You can mix this developer with color and bleach. 

It’s compatible with all hair types and textures and can even aid in concealing grays. A 20-vol developer will also help deposit new color into the cuticle. In addition, it can lighten the hair by 2+ levels depending on the hair’s characteristics and has a strength of 6%.

30 Vol

A 30 vol developer is where things can get risky because it’s very potent and powerful. However, when it’s used correctly, it can quickly lighten your hair, especially when mixed with bleach. If misused, it can potentially harm the hair.

This developer has a strength of 9% and is used when the hair is in good standing. It can also lighten the hair 3+ levels if you want to achieve a light blonde hue. Always proceed with caution when working with a 30 vol developer.

40 Vol 

Finally, the most potent and high-powered developer is 40 volume. It will be rare for a stylist to use a 40 vol developer, especially if the hair is already compromised. It can lighten the hair 4+ levels while also depositing your new hair color.

It’s risky to use 40 vol because it can cause severe damage to the hair and scalp if misused. It can lighten the hair quickly, but it may not permanently save the integrity of your hair. A 40 vol developer has a strength of 12%.

What’s The Ideal Volume Of Developer?

Most hair stylists will stick to a 20 or 30 vol of developer. Both of these developers will offer lift and help deposit color while having less risk of damaging the hair. This will ensure you healthily get your desired result, even if it’s more time-consuming.

40 vol developer can quickly fry your strands, especially if you have previously chemically-treated or compromised hair. So, 20 and 30-volume developers are a sweet middle ground, offering lift and deposit color without harming your hair.

Do You Always Need To Use A Developer?

In most hair coloring services, it’s required to use a developer. Unfortunately, you can’t lift the cuticle, eliminate your current color, and deposit a new hue without a developer. This is the case for permanent dye, demi-permanent dyes, and bleach.

You can also use a low-volume developer if you’re performing a toning treatment or a glaze. However, some color formulas like semi-permanent or temporary don’t require a developer because they will only deposit color without lifting the cuticle. 

This will work only if you plan to go darker, but going lighter will require a developer. 

Can Hair Developers Damage Your Strands? 

Developers are unlikely to damage your hair when they are used correctly. That includes following your manufacturer’s directions, mixing the correct ratios of product, and not frequently applying developer to your strands.

Also, a lower volume developer is less likely to damage your hair than a high volume one. Applying developer to your strands by itself is unlikely to cause harm but is not recommended in case it does lift the base color of your strands. 

Is Hair Developer Always Damaging? 

No, developers won’t always damage your hair. However, there is a right and wrong way to use a developer, and the volume you apply will heavily impact your hair’s standing. It would help if you also considered your hair’s characteristics and integrity.

A good rule is to avoid applying 30 or 40 volume developers. These are high in hydrogen peroxide and can quickly burn the strands if misused. They are high risk when paired with bleach, which can also create chemical burns or fry strands. 

Can You Dilute Developer? 

What can you do if you only have access to high volume developers? There is a possibility you can dilute the concentration of developers to make it more tolerable for your strands. However, this can also be risky if you’re not a professional stylist. 

You can add one part water to your developer to reduce its potency. It’s crucial not to add too much water because it can alter the developer’s formula and texture, which can also impact your hair.

So, it’s always ideal to purchase the volume of developer you need. 

Can You Use Hair Developer On Already Damaged Hair?

If you plan to color your hair and it’s taken some damage, it may be wise to stick to a 10 or 20 volume developer. Lower volumes will have less chance of harming your strands, especially if they’re already fragile.

However, you may want to take a few months off from hair coloring and work on increasing the integrity of your strands. Also, it will be wise to avoid 30 and 40 volume developers because they are very potent and can lift quickly. 

Is Developer Shelf-Stable? 

Another factor people fail to consider is the shelf life of developer. Using an expired developer on your hair won’t provide a successful color service and can potentially harm your hair. Most developers should be used within a year of opening.

However, developer formulas can vary by brand or manufacturer, so always follow your label’s instructions for the best results. You can toss the developer if it changes color, texture, or smell.

How Long Can You Let Developer Sit On The Hair? 

Like color and bleach, developers also have a processing time. A processing time refers to how long a product can sit on the hair until it’s time to rinse. Following the correct processing time will ensure your hair stays healthy, safe, and strong. 

The average processing time for developers is 30 minutes. But, again, developers can vary by brand and manufacturer, so always follow the directions on your developer’s label to ensure the best results.

How Can You Prevent Damage From Hair Developer?

Developer doesn’t always have to be damaging. Also, it’s rare for developers to damage the hair when they’re used correctly. However, you can implement a few hair tips to ensure you can keep your hair safe while using developer.

These tips include using a low-volume developer, avoiding coloring your hair frequently, and diluting a developer if needed. Also, following your developer’s directions will ensure less risk while using this cream activator.

Stick To A Low Volume 

Low volume developers will pose less risk during a color or bleach application. For example, a 10 or 20-vol developer will offer minimal lift but help deposit your desired shade. They are less potent and will most likely keep your hair intact.

A 10 or 20 vol developer is also safer, especially if your hair is already chemically-treated or compromised. 

Dilute The Concentration 

For those who only have access to high volume developers, try diluting their potency. You can potentially dilute high volume developers with one part water. It’s crucial not to alter the developer too much where it changes its formula or texture. 

However, it’s always best to purchase the developer you need than alter the chemical makeup of another volume. Always proceed with caution when diluting developers.

Avoid Coloring Your Hair Frequently 

The simplest thing you can do to avoid developer damage is to take a break from hair coloring. Coloring your strands frequently can lead to over-processed or compromised hair.

Once the hair is weakened, it can be challenging to bring it back to life.

Avoiding coloring your hair often will help maintain its integrity, so it’s strong enough to handle another color service down the road.

How To Use Developer 

You may be wondering, how do I use a developer? We’ve mentioned earlier that developers can vary in formula and that it’s always best to follow your brand’s directions for the best results. However, there are some general guidelines.

Working with the correct ratios of bleach, color, and developer is essential. This ensures you get the right consistency without harming your strands. 

With Bleach

Developer and bleach make a powerful combo, mainly if you use a high volume. So, it’s crucial to master your ratios to achieve your desired results. A general ratio to follow is 2:1.

This ratio means that you will mix two parts developer to one part bleach. This will give a liquid consistency and ensure the bleach won’t dry out. Any more or any less can create a patchy color outcome.

With Color 

Mixing color and developer can be tricky cause it all depends on what type of color you’re applying. For example, permanent, demi-permanent, and semi-permanent color may require different ratios. 

Some common color ratios you may see are 1:1, 1:1.5, or 1:2. Always check the labels of your products to ensure you mix the correct ratio of color and developer.

For a visual tutorial, take a look at this video from Brittnee Alexus on YouTube.

Related Questions

Can you use household hydrogen peroxide instead of developer? 

While both products have hydrogen peroxide, it may not be wise to add this to your hair color. What set’s these two products apart, and which will be the most effective for your hair?

Hair developer vs household hydrogen peroxide – what’s the difference?

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use household hydrogen peroxide by itself to replace developers. While both products have hydrogen peroxide, one is formulated for the hair and activates color, and the other isn’t.

Household hydrogen peroxide won’t have much effect on your hair. It could lighten your strands but won’t be as safe or effective as the developer. It also has a thinner consistency that can alter the formula of your color mixture.

So, it’s best to stick with hair developers. 


Hair developer doesn’t have to be damaging to your hair. However, it’s a crucial element needed in most hair coloring services. Also, when developer is used correctly, there is a minimal chance that it will severely damage your strands.

Developer can be damaging if you use a high volume or frequently color over-processed hair. Therefore, it’s best to stick with a low volume developer like 20 for most color services because it offers minimal lift and still deposits color.

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