Balayage vs Highlights: What's the Difference?

Bailyaege. Boleyage. Booleyage. Tomayto. Tomahto. If you can’t pronounce the popular hair color technique balayage (which in French means "to sweep"), then join the club. It doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue like Sun of a Beach does. Still, more difficult than hair color linguistics is knowing the discrepancy between the hottest hair color techniques behind sun-kissed strands. Balayage, highlights, babylights, lowlights—it’s a lot to process. But fret not—at your next salon appointment you’ll be ready to ask for the service like a pro, because we tapped the experts on every lightening hair color technique. Keep reading as Matt Rez, colorist to Olivia Holt and Chiara Ferragni from Mèche Salon in Beverly Hills; and Samantha Cusick, founder of UK’s top balayage salon Samantha Cusick London Salon and colorist to Zoe Sugg, answer all your burning questions about summer hair color processes, including how to determine which one is right for you.  

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What exactly are traditional highlights?

Samantha: Traditional highlights are when sections of hair are woven and lightened from the root through to the ends leaving some natural hair in between. Specific sectioning techniques are used to make sure hair is evenly highlighted so it doesn’t have a streaky result. The woven sections of hair are usually folded into foils to keep them isolated from the other hair.

Matt: Traditional highlights are select strands of hair that are weaved out of a thin subsection of hair. Typically they are laid over a foil and some form of lightener is applied to lighten the hair. That weave of hair being lightened is the highlight, meaning it will be the lighter than the strands not weaved into the foiled and/or wrapped hair. 

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What is balayage and the technique behind it?

Matt: Balayage is a technique (NOT A LOOK ) where color is painted onto a select strand(s) or lock of hair without foils. The technique produces a warmer color outcome and is best used on base colors in the dark blonde world. Balayage will simulate clients natural hair’s lift in extreme sun for a long period of time. 

Samantha: Balayage is a freehand painting technique that creates a super blended multi-tonal and sun-kissed result. It is super different in the way that it is applied, as lighter pieces are blended throughout, starting very fine at the top of the hair and gradually getting thicker though the mid-lengths and ends.

Unlike highlights, it's usually a process without foils (but some techniques do incorporate a film somewhat like saran wrap in order to achieve lighter results).

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What are lowlights?

Samantha: Lowlights use the same technique as highlights but a darker colour is painted through to create a dimensional multi-tonal result. Lowlights are usually added through if you have been having highlights for awhile, as over time more hair is highlighted (lightened) so the dimension created by leaving woven prices of your natural colour is lost, low lights re-create that dimension. 

Matt: Lowlights are select strands of hair like the highlight; however, they are the color of the base when going darker, or darker than the base in cases when depth below the base color is being created. There is a HUGE misconception of what lowlights are. Lowlights are mistaken for a darker version of a highlight. A darker highlight is NOT a lowlight. Basically, lowlights are never produced by a lift or lightening process. They either match the base color and/or are darker than the base color when they are weaved in. 

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What are babylights?

Matt: Babylights are exactly what they are called. They are mini highlights that are weaved super fine to blend and melt right into the base. They are not to create much dramatic dimension, but more of a sparkle outcome. They look best done in combination with more contrasted and dramatic highlights running down the mid-shaft on down to the ends. 

Samantha: Babylights are essentially superfine highlights. The same technique is used; weaving hair and painting root to tip but less hair is taken in to each foil and smaller gaps are left between foils to ensure a more subtle integration with your natural base colour. The result being a subtle multi-tonal blend of colours like you see in children's perfectly sun-kissed hair.

I will often incorporate babylights into a balayage service especially around hair lines and partings where hair would naturally be lighter.

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So, what is the actual difference between traditional highlights and balayage? 

Samantha: Balayage is a much more visual technique, meaning unlike highlights that follow a sectioning pattern, balayage allows your colourist to personalise your colour placement. Think contouring for your hair. Lighter pieces are placed where best to complement your hair cut, facial features and skin tones making it look way more natural. It's also so much quicker than traditional foiling.

Matt: The difference between balayage and foiled highlights is the lack of foil and/or wrap that packets the hair being lightened away. 

 

How can I tell which one—highlights or balayage—is better for my hair?

Matt: Picking which is best for you is a matter of taste and starting point. If you have virgin joe and looking for subtle highlights to break up your silhouette, balayage is the way to go. It will create a much more blended result, but deeper natural hair colors BEWARE—there will be red undertones as the sun would create the same. Foiled highlights can pass the red and orange zones more gracefully and your colorist will have way more control of tonal outcome with traditional highlights.  

Samantha: This is something best discussed with your hair colourist ahead of a colour appointment. It might be that a mix of techniques are best for you. It totally depends on what kind of result you want and how much maintenance you are willing to put in.

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Is one technique more damaging than the other?

Samantha: Both highlighting and balayage require the use of lighting products (bleach) which if not used responsibly can cause damage. With either technique, make sure your colourists use Olaplex (a bond multiplier the protects the integrity of your hair whilst colouring) in the bleach to ensure minimum chemical damage happens when lightening. That being said, I can't help feel that highlighting is more damaging long term.

Highlights require more frequent maintenance due to obvious grow out and no matter how careful your colourist is, colour overlap during application is inevitable—that means bleaching over bleached hair which can be super damaging. As balayage grows out almost undetected salon visits can be few and far between, and with it being a visual technique your colourist can avoid the overlapping.

Matt: Balayage is typically more damaging though foils can be too! Balayage requires a stronger bleaching agent or lightener to create lift and surpass the unwanted brass tones. You can get a much more lighter and controlled lift with foils, though if a colorist uses high volume peroxide unnecessarily in a foiled highlight, that can be damaging as well.  

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For traditional highlights, what’s the maintenance like and how often do I need to visit the salon? 

Matt: With traditional highlights, if they are smoked out up top and rooted to blend with the base, a touch up is typically not needed for 3 months or so. Most of my clients go for 3-4 months. Unless they are super blonde and want highlights super high up to the scalp. 

Samantha: Traditional highlights need to be topped up every 4-6 weeks as the grow out can be really obvious. Babylights grow out a little softer so can be pushed to every 8 weeks normally.

 

For balayage, what’s the maintenance like and how often do I need to visit the salon? 

Samantha: Balayage maintenance can differ from client to client, but as a guide clients usually come every 4 months for a top up. We do, however, recommend that they come every 8 weeks for a toner as these can often wash out and fade over time especially if they have been on holiday in the sun and pool. Nobody wants brassy tones in their beautifully balayaged hair. 

Matt: With balayage technique, it’s all relative as well. I would say 3-6 months depending on how high up you go with them initially. 

 

The key to sun-kissed highlights is in this bottle