As soon as the sun emerges from its half-yearlong hibernation, I instinctively crave lighter hair. Not that I have anything against darker shades (in fact I think some of the world’s greatest beauties are brunettes), but I miss the blond locks I was born with and somehow feel that brighter hair gives me a sunnier disposition. With the arrival of hot weather, I want to look like a sun-kissed, golden-hued beach goddess returning from the French Riviera, not the washed-out apparition topped with the dishwater-dull mop I see before me in the mirror. That’s wishful thinking, of course, since a trip to France is definitely not in the cards this summer and my roots keep dashing my blond ambitions by growing back darker and drabber each winter.

I would never entertain the thought of chemically bleaching my entire head, since my hair’s health and texture trump color in my book. However, I do make bi-annual visits to my hometown salon to give the strands around my face an occasional pick-me-up. Foil highlights are an expensive habit (especially considering they only last four to six weeks before roots start to show), and they do cumulative - albeit intermittent - injury to the hair follicles. Semi-permanent lightening products like Sun-in strip the hair of its natural color thanks to hydrogen peroxide - healthy hair’s worst enemy. What’s a girl with blond on the brain to do?

I turned to John Frieda, taking a cue from the countless devotees who have made him a household name over the past decade. There’s no doubt you have seen the Sheer Blonde line in drugstores or commercials. I remember when the original Sheer Blonde shampoo was first launched, long before I started coloring my hair. Clearly, the concept of marketing to a particular hair color took off, as there is now a slew of industry copycats such as Pantene Pro-V Blonde Expressions. But for my experiment I went with the blond-boosting shampoo that started it all, the one that has withstood the test of time and even spawned a family of spin-off products.

A few of my friends swear by Sheer Blonde for extending the life of their highlights. Others keep the products in their shower just because they like the subtle, unisex scent. When I purchased Sheer Blond Go Blonder Lightening shampoo, I didn’t have unrealistic expectations. Besides prolonging the period between salon visits, my goal was to brighten my hair’s artificially blond highlights and the unadulterated surrounding strands. The product information doesn’t specify whether its lightening effects work better on color-treated or natural hair, so I was hedging my bets on both.

Even with my reasonable expectations, I set the bar too high. After swapping out my regular shampoo with Sheer Blonde, I waited patiently for a noticeable difference in my hair’s dirty blond shade. Once I had worked the shampoo into a foamy lather, my hair instantly felt parched and craved deep conditioning. Two weeks later, I still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the slightest brightening power within my new product. If anything, my hair seemed more brassy and subdued than ever. The worst part wasn’t the lack of results regarding color, but rather the unfortunate effect it had on my hair’s texture. Instead of emerging from the shower moisturized and healthy-looking, my hair became flat, dry, and brittle.

One glance at the ingredients explained why. Sheer Blonde touts chamomile and citrus as its secret blond-enhancing ingredients. Rinsing the hair with chamomile flower extract or chamomile tea has been used for centuries as a method of brightening hair. Today, lemon juice is probably the most popular natural remedy for lightening hair, but it is also highly acidic and can be damaging if not diluted. Both of these applications require at least 20 minutes under sunlight to enhance their brightening effects. However, John Frieda does not indicate that the daily Sheer Blonde shampoo needs to be activated by UV light in order to maximize results, so I avoided the sun as usual. Could this be why the blond effects fell flat?

Instead of offsetting the drying properties of lemon extract with a conditioning base, John Frieda’s shampoo formula gives top billing to two very unattractive sisters: the Sulfates. Sodium lauryl sulfate and closely-related sodium laureth sulfate are harsh chemical detergents known to dissolve oils, denature proteins, and deposit on the skin surface and the hair follicle, thus leaving both susceptible to damage. The sulfates are also accused of being absorbed by the skin and wreaking havoc on the internal organs. SLS in concentrations of 10-30% causes severe skin irritation and corrosion, as described in a report published in the Journal of The American College of Toxicology. Formulations with SLS at a concentration higher than 30% (likely the level that Sheer Blonde contains) are labeled “highly irritating and dangerous” in the report.

Additional allergens and irritants join the fray in the form of coco-betaine, DMDM hydantoin, and propylene glycol. I consider myself lucky that, besides stripping and aggravating my hair, the shampoo didn’t add insult to injury by triggering skin inflammation. John Frieda makes a point of boasting that Sheer Blonde’s formula is free of ammonia and peroxide. Ironically, it is not the highlighting ingredients in the product, but rather the cleansing ingredients, that end up raising red flags. Meanwhile, the alleged blond-enhancing “actives” - chamomile and citrus - are too weak to overtly affect hair color.

If you read the fine print on the Sheer Blonde shampoo bottle, you’ll notice that the lightening claims are couched in rather sneaky language. John Frieda never says that the shampoo will deposit color or permanently lighten hair. Instead, he says that the shampoo is equipped with a “natural lightening complex” that will “gently reduce color pigments in the hair.” Apart from the chamomile and citrus, there is no science buried within Sheer Blonde’s formula to turn hair a lighter shade, and the only real “technology” at work is a thorough cleansing. By ridding hair of residue with the help of sulfates, the shampoo removes buildup that can make strands appear dark and dull.

Despite a handful of beneficial botanicals in the mix, Sheer Blonde Go Blonder Lightening Shampoo does not contain enough quality ingredients to justify stripping the hair with harsh chemicals. Its lightening effects are minimal, if not illusory. Though the concept of targeting shampoo formulas to specific hair colors is genius from a marketing standpoint, there is no technology to support that it makes a difference. The (dumb blond) joke’s on you, John Frieda!

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Ingredients in John Frieda Sheer Blonde Go Blonder Lightening Shampoo

Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Lactic Acid, Glycol Distearate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Betaine, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract (Matricaria), Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Peel Extract (Lemon), Curcuma Longa (Turmeric) Root Extract (Turmeric), Crocus Sativus Flower Extract, Helianthus Annuus Seed Extract (Sunflower), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract (Grape), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract (Grape), Glycerin, Benzyl Alcohol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Cocamide MEA, PEG 40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Hydroxide, Glycine, Alcohol, Butylene Glycol, Sodium Chloride, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Xylene Sulfonate, Maleic Acid, Tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E), Disodium EDTA, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Fragrance, Yellow 10 Aluminum Lake (CI 47005)