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Balayage vs. highlights: what’s the difference and what will suit you?

Nkeiruka Obiwulu
Balayage vs. highlights, which one is right for me? Anna K.

Whenever you want to get your hair lighter without committing to a full-color makeover, you are sure to stumble across the balayage vs. highlights dilemma since the two are the most popular ways to arrive at a lightened look. Read on to get straightforward answers about your hair coloring options.

What Are Hair Highlights?

Highlights are pieces of hair weaved out of larger sections and processed with some kind of lightener, which is usually applied close to the scalp and goes all the way down to the tips. As a result, these strands become lighter than the hair left in between, be it your natural mane or a base color deposited earlier. In most cases, pieces of foil are used to fold the strands covered with a lightener and keep them separated from the rest of the hair during the processing. Since there is more than one way to apply lightener and section hair, you can choose between different types of highlights: babylights, chunky highlights, teasylights, and so on.

Pros of highlights:

  • can change the whole look of hair by taking it four or more shades lighter
  • work for any hair texture and color, including gray hair
  • ensure even distribution of color along the length
  • give more control over the outcome
  • usually come at a more affordable price

Cons of highlights:

  • show a more visible demarcation as the hair grows out
  • require more frequent touch-ups, which can wipe out the lower cost of the service
  • can be harsh on hair

What Is Balayage?

Unlike highlights, balayage is more about a technique than a final look. It doesn’t rely on uniform sectioning — a colorist selects random strands to apply lightener, kind of painting on the hair’s surface. A lightener is usually deposited in the mid-shaft rather than at the roots and then stretched down, getting thicker toward the ends and thus mimicking the look of hair naturally fading in the sun. Foils are not used in the balayage process, although some wrap sometimes can be incorporated to enhance the lightener’s effect.

Pros of balayage:

  • creates a more natural, sun-kissed look
  • allows more customized placement tailored to your haircut and facial features
  • grows out gracefully, with no visible demarcation
  • extends the time between touch-ups
  • takes less time to apply
  • is less likely to damage your hair with over-lightening

Cons of balayage:

  • cannot deliver high-contrast color schemes
  • often has a higher price tag

The Difference Between Balayage and Highlights

For you to better understand the main difference between balayage and highlights, let’s slice and dice all the aspects of the coloring processes.

  • Application

When doing a balayage, a colorist picks various pieces of hair based on their artistic vision and applies color onto the whole portion, with saturation getting more intense toward the ends. For highlights, the hair is sectioned in a uniform way to leave out a base shade, and a lightener or permanent hair dye is evenly deposited into the sectioned-out pieces, which are then packed into foils.

  • Result

Balayage produces soft, natural brightness a few shades lighter than a base color, with a subtle gradient toward the ends. Highlights deliver brighter strands with more contrast against the base and uniform color distribution throughout the length.

  • Placement

To get highlights, the colorist stretches a lightener from the roots to the ends, while balayage starts closer to the middle of the hair or is done in finer strokes at the root area.

  • Maintenance

You need to refresh your balayage once in 3-6 months, and the retouch period for highlights usually ranges from one to three months.

  • Time

As a rule, balayage takes less time to complete, making from one to three hours against 2-4 hours for highlights.

  • Cost

Colorists tend to charge a higher price for balayage services, with the cost of a full balayage starting at $180 vs. $110-140 for full foil color.

Highlights vs Balayage
By Taya

Balayage vs. Highlights: Which Is Better?

Based on the above highlights vs. balayage comparison, you might think the latter technique is always a better option since it lends a more natural feel, boasts less visible regrowth, takes less time to complete, and allows for longer periods between touch-ups. But the truth is that you can fail to achieve your hair goal with the freehand technique, especially if you are after a big color shift. So, is balayage better than highlights? No, it really depends on the final look you want to create as well as on your base color, hair length, and texture.

Should I Try Balayage or Highlights?

While it’s better to choose balayage or highlights upon discussing your hair goals with a pro, you may figure out the right direction depending on how dramatic your color change should be. If you want to get more lift, stronger contrast, or a more uniform look of your lightened strands, opt for highlights. Balayage will suit those who wish to upgrade their manes with soft sweeps of color, leaving the roots in a more natural-looking color zone.

Balayage and Highlights Pictures

To make it easier for you to pick a side, we have gathered a collection of trendy hair color highlights that can serve as your visual reference and inspiration source.

1. Ultra-Long Bob with Beige Blonde Highlights. These soft highlights break the flat feel of the straight tresses but keep the color in a cool spectrum to complement the complexion.

2. Straight Blonde Hair with Bright Money Piece. Apart from giving dimension to the straight hair, this color job creates a stunning contrast with nearly white ribbons along the face.

3. Blonde Highlights Plus Shadow Roots. Here, a darker color placed at the roots helps to soften the transition to the highlights and ensures less frequent touch-ups.

4. Streaky Highlights and Lowlights Combo. The brown pieces of hair enhanced with lowlights add even more depth to this hairstyle for the glossy highlights to shine out.

5. Ashy Brown Hair with Traditional Highlights. This picture proves that classic highlights can easily lift a darker base without going brassy.

6. Precision Bob with Multitone Highlights. The sharp shape and pin-straight texture of this bob create a perfect canvas to showcase a nice range of purple-tinted shades.

7. Textured Bob with a Set of Blondes. This color scheme mixes and matches brown, honey, and light blonde hues to arrive at a natural-looking sun-kissed look.

8. Espresso Brown Hair with a Swirl of Hazelnut. This is how a generous portion of highlights can make a deep base color much lighter, still staying in the bronde zone.

9. Lavishly Highlighted Hair with Depth. This head of hair feels perfectly blonde while showing an amazing depth at the roots, with a dark brown shade peeping out here and there.

10. Chunky Ribbons of White and Black. This is a great example of dramatic looks you can create by covering the whole length of your hair with chunky high-contrast highlights.

11. Coppery Balayage Highlights. This color job uses the reverse balayage technique to tone down lighter pieces of the hair and lower the contrast between the base and highlights for a softer effect.

12. Dark Brown with Chocolaty Strips. Contrary to popular belief, balayage can result in a stripy hairstyle with a bolder approach to contrast.

13. Buttery Blonde Balayage. This oh-so-delicate balayage clearly shows how the transition from finer strokes on the crown to more saturated blonde at the bottom creates a sunlit dimension.

14. Subtly Bronzed Black Hair. Although lifted almost to blonde, these balayage highlights look subtle due to their careful placement and seamless implantation into the black brown hair.

15. Dimensional Waves. In this lob hairstyle, pieces of hair are selectively hand-painted to accentuate their texture and add movement while retaining depth.

16. Dirty Blonde with Added Glow. Here, the blonde highlights work really well to enhance the bends in the waves and give them interest with a play of light and shadow.

17. Smokey Blonde Balayage for Long Hair. This balayage stands out for a personalized approach to placement, laying emphasis on the middle of the hair length with brighter midshaft highlights.

18. Roasted Contouring. Here is a happy middle ground between cool and warm tones to deliver a smooth transition from a deep base to a sandy blonde.

19. Dreamy Blonde Balayage. This stunning piece of coloring manages to bring together a soft blend of shades and a high-impact blonde framing the face.

20. Natural Brown with Pops of Blonde. This balayage beautifully infuses the medium brown base with bright streaks of blonde getting denser toward the bottom and front.

We hope our balayage vs. highlights breakdown will help you to understand what to expect in a salon while our collection of pictures will get you inspired to go for a fresh look.