Balayage vs. Highlights: Picking Hair Coloring Techniques

By: Yara Simón  | 
There are different ways to achieve colored hair, including the blonde highlights this person is sporting. Carmen Martínez Torrón / Getty Images

You're ready for a hair change. You want to brighten your locks, so you think adding in some highlights will do the trick. But do you opt for balayage or highlights of the traditional variety?

Read on to learn more about the differences between balayage vs. highlights.


Why Choose Highlights Over All-Over Color

Both highlights and all-over color can make you feel more excited about your hair. All-over color is a great option if you want to cover gray hair, want to complement a new, edgier hairstyle or want something completely different than your natural color.

Heres why you might want to choose highlights:


  • You're looking or a subtle change. Highlights are more about accenting your hair rather than changing it altogether. You natural hair color will still shine through with highlights.
  • You want something that is less high-maintenance. Highlights require less maintenance than all-over hair dye, which can expose your roots and fade over time. You'll have to go to the salon regularly to keep it looking fresh. According to the David Frank Salon, "All-over color processes should be done every three to five weeks for best results. Sooner really isn’t necessary, and longer will effect the products ability to lift and deposit evenly. Foil highlights should be done every six to eight weeks depending on how much contrast there is between your highlights and your natural color."
  • You have darker hair. While you can choose either direction as someone with dark hair, an all-over color is harsher on those with deeper natural hair colors. Highlights can help you change up your style without as much effort.
  • You’d like to add dimension to a simple haircut. Highlights can add some visual interest without having to add in layers or change up your current hairstyle.

What Are Highlights?

Traditional highlights involve dying small sections throughout the hair a few shades lighter than one's natural hair color. A stylist will wrap those pieces of hair in foil to help the color develop.

This hair coloring technique works well on light and dark hair color. Depending on a client's preference, hair stylists can add in chunky or subtle highlights.


Here are a few other types of highlights:

  • Babylights: These are more subtle than traditional highlights and result in a natural look. The lightened hair strands are thin, with little space between them. "Babylights are meant to make hair look slightly sun-kissed," Christine Thompson, cofounder of hair salon Spoke & Weal, tells Byrdie.
  • Chunky highlights: Unlike babylights, chunky highlights are thicker strips of hair — about 1-inch wide — dyed in a color that typically creates more contrast against your natural hair.
  • Ombré: This hair color technique gradually changes from one color to another.


What Is Balayage?

Balayage, which derives from the French for "sweeping," is another highlighting technique to add dimension and visual interest to your hair. With the balayage technique, stylists use a freehand approach and no foils. It's not as uniform as traditional highlights.

"Balayage is a much more visual technique, meaning unike highlights that follow a sectioning pattern, balayage allows your colourist to personalise your colour placement," Samantha Cusick, founder of Samantha Cusick London Salon, tells Ouai.


"Think contouring for your hair," she continues. "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,"

Balayage vs. Highlights: Which Hair Coloring Technique Is Right For You?

While both methods result in hair highlights, the end results of traditional foil highlights and balayage highlights are quite different. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Dying method: With traditional highlights, stylists will dye uniform strips of hair with a brush and then wrap them in foil to help the lift or lightening process. Highlighting hair can take two to four hours. Balayage does not use foil and stylists use their hands to add in the dye. It can take up to three hours to complete.
  • Coverage: Traditional highlights start at the roots and cover the hair in a uniform way. Balayage usually goes from mid-shaft to the ends of the hair.
  • Bleaching agent: Since balayage doesn't use foils, which allow you to get a "lighter and [more] controlled lift," it requires a stronger lightener or bleach.
  • Maintenance: While traditional highlights require less maintenance than all-over hair dye, it is more of a time commitment than balayage. When traditional highlights grow out, it's more obvious that you're due for a salon visit. Balayage grows out more subtly.

Can't Choose?

If both balayage and traditional highlights sound intriguing to you and you're having a hard time choosing between the two, you could try foilayage, a combination of the two techniques.


This can get your hair lighter than with balayage alone because of the use of foil, but it uses the same sweeping technique as balayage.