I Definitely Wasn’t Ready for This Y2K Hair Trend to Make a Comeback

Paging Kelly Clarkson

chunky highlights hero
Getty Images

I was recently looking through Pinterest’s Summer Trend Report and came across a look that was all too familiar (and one I thought we were leaving in the vault for good). Per their report, the search for ‘chunky highlights’ has surged by 5,400 percent, and no, that’s not a typo. I’ve also seen the rising trend on TikTok, adding another early aughts beauty look that Gen Z has sunken their teeth into. As a millennial, I’m very conflicted about the return of this particular trend, but I want to keep an open mind so I tapped a few hairstylists to get their pro opinions on the allure of chunky highlights, plus tips for how to rock ‘em in 2024 without looking outdated. 

Meet the Experts

  • Ian Michael Black is a hair colorist and the global artistic director for Aveda. He has two decades of experience and is recognized for his cutting-edge color techniques. He uses his platform to educate aspiring stylists and showcase major hair transformations using Aveda’s products. 
  • Mariah Joseph is a celebrity hair colorist at Suite Caroline Salon based in New York. She is known for her expertise in creative color and double-process services. Her work has been featured in editorial shoots, fashion runways and in brand campaigns. 
  • Millie Morales is a celebrity hair stylist, makeup artist and beauty expert for Garnier. She has over 25 years of experience in the beauty industry with her work being featured in publications such as Cosmopolitan and PEOPLE en Español, as well as award shows like the Latin Grammys and Billboard Awards. Her clients include Karol G, Roselyn Sanchez and Alejandra Espinoza. 
chunky highlights trend a photo collage of christina aguliera, lindsay lohan and kelly clarkson
Kevin.Mazur/Frederick M. Brown/Jim Spellman/Getty Images

What Are Chunky Highlights?

In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, chunky highlights were everywhere. The complete opposite of subtle balayage, these thick, bleached strands were placed throughout the hair. The color technique was a popular choice for brunettes, as the brighter blonde pieces added a nice contrast. Made famous by celebs like Lindsay Lohan and Kelly Clarkson, the edgy look showcased a pop of color that was striking and very bold for the era. 

chunky highlights trend a photo collage of kim petras, jennifer lopez and Trinity Vigorsky
Instagram: @kimpetras/@jlo/@mariahjocolor

How Have Chunky Highlights Changed Since Then?

Nowadays, chunky highlights are more customizable, so they can be as bold or as subtle as you want them. As Morales explains, “The color trend has evolved significantly since the early 2000s. Back then, chunky highlights were high-contrast with a stark difference between the highlights and base color. Today, while the boldness remains, there's a greater emphasis on blending the colors to achieve a more polished, cohesive look.”

The popular trend has paved the way for other hair coloring techniques such as ribbon highlights, peekaboo highlights, money pieces and so forth, which all add depth and dimension to your hair without being quite as stark. “We have more sophisticated application methods to ensure the highlights complement the overall hair color and skin tone. There's also a broader palette of colors being used now, from pastel hues to vivid unconventional shades, allowing for more personalization and creativity,” adds Morales.

How to Get Chunky Highlights

  1. Section off your hair. The thickness of each section will be determined by you and your stylist. Joseph adds, “Chunky highlights are a versatile and personal trend, so have fun with your stylist to come up with a placement together. Think of the best way to make your natural texture (and preferred style) really pop.”
  2. Apply bleach or lightener on the chosen chunks. According to Morales, the application process is crucial in determining the final look. Highlights will typically be at least two to three shades lighter than your natural base. However, she also notes those with dark hair will require more processing time or multiple sessions to reach their desired results. 
  3. Wrap each section in foil. A stylist will begin painting each section from root to ends before wrapping it with foil and waiting a few minutes.  
  4. Rinse and apply toning gloss. Once the bleach has been removed, a stylist will go over the section with a toning gloss to minimize brassiness.  
chunky highlights trend a photo collage of rihanna, marsai martin and ciara
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Rich Polk/Amy Sussman/Getty Images

While most Y2K trends used to only cater to straight hair, more modern interpretations of those looks can be worn by all hair types and textures. “In the early 2000’s, chunky highlights were strong and stark, and shown on straighter hairstyles. But this time around, we are seeing them more on textured hair, creating a softer and fresher look,” says Black. “As people embrace their own natural texture, it makes sense that highlights are getting chunkier. Smaller highlights can get lost in the waves and curls, whereas chunkier pieces bring out the texture and create a greater dimension to a look.”

How to Maintain Chunky Highlights

Like many highlighting services, the experts recommend using a color-safe shampoo and conditioner, which can help preserve the vibrancy of the color, neutralize brassiness and strengthen strands. Use this duo at least once or twice a week for the best results. Black also advises adding a weekly hair masque to your routine to help bring back moisture to your strands, as bleaching can be very drying. 

As for touch ups, Joseph suggests going in for a refresh every 6 to 8 weeks. On that note: Chunky highlights don’t have the best regrowth process, so make sure to stay on top of your appointments. And if you’re not so keen on diving headfirst into chunky highlights, consider getting money pieces or babylights instead. 

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Beauty and Cultures Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, NY Native

Chelsea Candelario is a Beauty & Cultures Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the...