Thinking About Getting Highlights? Read This First

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01_R29TopKnot_071013_729_AmeliaAlpaugh copyPhotographed by Amelia Alpaugh.
Highlighting hair is one of my favorite things to do, and I consider myself somewhat of a highlight specialist. I feel this way because I've been highlighting hair for more than 25 years, and usually 10 to 20 heads of hair a day! I firmly believe that the most beautiful and interesting hair is multi-tonal.

Monochromatic color can be dramatic, striking, and a host of other flattering adjectives, but once you place some highlights on a solid color, it doesn't compare to the beauty those ribbons of lightness create. Highlights can accentuate eye color, bring out cheek bones, and even slim full faces. They show off the lines of your hair cut, create depth, and the illusion of fullness. They are a great introduction to hair color, and I can't think of a single reason why everyone shouldn't have a few highlights in their hair, but of course, I may be a little partial. Here is my guide to getting the perfect highlight.

The most important factors to achieving a perfect highlight are the size of the highlights, the amount of highlights, where they are placed, and how light they are.

The two most common techniques used for highlighting are balayage (freehand painting), and foil. Different artists will use one or the other depending on the desired look and their personal preference. That said, I believe a skilled colorist can achieve any look using either technique.

Balayage is the French word for "to sweep," and it refers to the sweeping motion the brush makes when painting bleach on to the hair. This technique involves carving out swatches of hair in revolutions around the head. The bleach is painted freehand, directly on the hair, and covered with cellophane. Because the bleach is exposed to the air, it weakens quickly (in the same way a bottle of Clorox would weaken if you left the cap off), so it's necessary to use high strengths of lighteners. Also, it results in a much less systematic and more haphazard look then foil, and is best used for edgy, beachy looks like surfer-chic highlights and ombre.

Foils involve weaving strands of hair and painting a lightning agent on them before wrapping them in foil. The foil keeps the product moist, and the strength doesn't weaken. The foils can be placed in different patterns depending on where the hair is parted, and how it's worn. You can foil with hair dye, oil bleaches, and many other gentle products. You know exactly where everything is placed, as well as the size and lightness of each foil.

I am a perfectionist who likes total balance and symmetry. If there are five highlights on one side of the head, then here should be five highlights on the other side. That's why I prefer the control and precision of foil.
02_refinery012114_11213_BenRitter copyPhotographed by Ben Ritter.
Placement And Size Of Highlights
The thickest and lightest pieces should be around the frame of the face. They should then regress in size and lightness toward the crown. The tighter you weave the highlights and the closer together you place them, the lighter the over all look will be, and the less contrast you'll have.

The Lightness & Tone Of The Highlights
The level of lightness of your highlights is determined by the strength of the lightener, and how long its left on the hair. For the most natural look, highlights shouldn't be more than two to three levels lighter than the base color, and they should be in the same tonal family. In other words, if the base is warm (dark, golden blonde), the highlights should be warm (buttery blonde). If the base is a cool, sandy blonde, then the highlights should be in the cool family as well, like a light beige. Below are the steps you should take when deciding the tone of your highlights:

If you have pink undertones, then you should avoid having warmth in your highlights. It will make you look flushed in the same way that wearing a red shirt would. Check the veins in your arms: If you have green veins and gold flecks in your eyes, then you're a warm skin tone. You should opt for cool tones like sandy blondes, and beige blondes.

If you have an olive skin tone, blue veins, and silver-grey flecks in your eyes, then you want to opt for golden blonde tones that will bring warmth to your face, and make your skin appear less green. Try buttery blondes, honey, and strawberry.

If your skin tone is neutral and has no pink or green, then (lucky you!) you can go for either warm or cool blonde hues.

Lowlights
Lowlights refers to strands of darkness woven back into the hair to return contrast to hair that's been highlighted repeatedly. They are usually the same level of darkness as the base color (or within a shade or two) and they can be used to bridge the gap between a very dark base color that has very light highlights. By weaving an in-between shade of lowlight, you can connect the two other colors and avoid looking stripy. Blonde girls can get into this blonde, blonder, blondest routine, and they lose all perspective, so It's important to periodically check with your colorist to see if you need to weave in a few lowlights. You never want your skin tone to match you hair color, so prevent looking washed out by doing lowlights when necessary.

NEXT: Never Fear — Our Guide To Going Blonde Is Here