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Over the course of my life, I’ve put my hair through a lot of trauma, and it all goes back to one defining moment: The hot July night in 2001 when my best friend’s mom took us to see “Legally Blonde” in theaters.
As I sat there, my 11-year-old hands digging into our popcorn bucket for one last greasy kernel, I was enthralled by Reese Witherspoon and her perfect golden locks. Her hair was ― and remains to this day (have you seen Madeline on “Big Little Lies”?) ― everything to me. Whether her locks were up in a smart, “What, like it’s hard?” ponytail or sexily tousled down her back, I couldn’t get enough of them.
When I got home that night, I stared in the mirror for a long time at the mousy brown mess on top of my head. “Someday,” I thought to myself, “I will have hair just like Elle Woods.”
But life had other plans. Shockingly, my mother wasn’t on board with paying hundreds of dollars to turn her preteen, Harry Potter-loving daughter into a wannabe Harvard law student. Instead, I made do with covert sprays of Sun-In until I started hitting the drugstore bottle-blonde bleach — hard ― at 14. My blonde ambitions were realized, but my dreams of long, shiny golden locks that would finally win back Warner’s heart were dashed to pieces. Instead, I ended up with a weird, bleach-burned pixie cut.
To figure out what went wrong with my bottle blonde, I talked to Sarah Vandenboogaart, a stylist at Arsova Salon in Chicago.
“The ammonia in bleach mixed with the hydrogen peroxide developer creates a chemical reaction in your hair,” Vandenboogaart said. “The combination of the two breaks down the melanin bonds that naturally create the color of your hair.”
As I found out over the course of the next 15 years due to bad bleach jobs, box dyes and ― eventually ― frequent salon visits, when those bonds are broken, your hair stops being polite, and starts getting real.
For a short time (i.e., when broke in college), my hair was long, curly and dye-free. Then I started working at a salon after I graduated, and my hair didn’t stand a chance. After a particularly rough three years from 2016 to 2019, when I decided my hair needed to be (in no particular order) pink, fire-engine red, box-dye black, chocolate brown, ashy blonde and then literally white, my once-smooth, curly mane had once again been reduced to a shoulder-length mess of split ends and frizz.
It was almost enough to get me to stop dying it altogether. Almost. Luckily, I didn’t have to cut out the color, because my stylist recommended I start using Olaplex No. 3 at home to save my strands.
At its base level, Olaplex is a hair care system with simply named products for each step of the way. Olaplex No. 1 and Olaplex No. 2 are for use during and immediately after color in the salon by a professional. Olaplex No. 3, on the other hand, is for at-home use.
Each product contains the same patented (and very secret!) active ingredient, originally invented by chemists Craig Hawker and Eric Pressly. This mysterious active ingredient (which, unlike many other products that claim to “repair” damaged hair, does not contain silicone or oils) works to link broken disulfide bonds in the hair both during and after color treatments.
According to expert colorist Daniel Fabry, who works out of Chicago’s Bartucci Salon, Olaplex can significantly reduce the damage done to these bonds when used during a coloring session.
“Lightening the hair typically breaks about 50% of its disulfide bonds,” he said. “With the use of Olaplex, you can ensure that 80% will remain intact, dramatically cutting down on the damage that can happen during the lightening process.”
After all the products I’d tried, I was skeptical. For years I’d been bombarded with ads for leave-in conditioners, shampoos and miracle products that claimed to repair damaged hair but ultimately left it just as fried as before. But I relented. When had my precious stylist ever led me astray?
I ordered a bottle of Olaplex from Amazon. For reference, this is what my natural, air-dried hair looked like the day before my Olaplex arrived:
Per the bottle’s instructions, I applied the No. 3 to my damp hair after I got out of the shower. My stylist recommended I leave it in all night for optimal results, though Olaplex says you can leave it in for as little as 30 minutes. (As a pro tip, you might want to cover your pillowcase with a towel if you’re concerned with getting product on it, though Olaplex won’t damage any of your linens if it gets on them.)
In the morning my hair still felt a little damp. I eagerly washed it out with my everyday shampoo and conditioner, then let my curls air-dry. The results were, well, see for yourself:
Dear reader, I was as shocked as you are. Not only was my hair actually drying nicely for the first time in years, but it truly felt like new hair. It seemed thicker, smoother and fuller than it had in years. I began using Olaplex No. 3 once a week for three months, and since then my hair has grown for the first time since college.
While No. 3 is perhaps the brand’s most well-known product, Olaplex also offers an at-home shampoo (No. 4) and conditioner (No. 5), as well as a leave-in “bond smoother” (No. 6), all of which also contain small doses of the patented formula. Do you need them if your stylist uses Nos. 1 and 2 when coloring your hair in the salon and you use No. 3 regularly at home? Not necessarily.
Brand spokeswoman Ty Render also told me about the newest member of the Olaplex family: No. 7, a bonding oil that purports to strengthen hair while improving shine, increasing manageability, eliminating frizz and acting as a heat protectant. Olaplex No. 7 was recently added to Sephora stores and honestly, I’m probably going to try it out, too.