The Great Big Guide To Highlights

To the uninitiated, highlights can be daunting. Just as the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, the nuanced results you can achieve using the various methods on the full spectrum of base colors, from dark to light, are legion.

To demystify the process and help you ensure you get the look you want, we talked to the best colorists in the beauty game for their tips on everything from what words to drop in your color descriptions to the difference between buzzwords like babylights, sombré, and ecaille. But, first let's take a look at what you need to know before your head even goes near the dye.

Before You Arrive
Come with your root-flag flying. “Using root-camouflaging products before getting your hair colored doesn’t let us see the base color we’re working with,” explains Redken celebrity colorist Tracey Cunningham. So, skip the root touch-up pen just on the day of your appointment, though Cunningham specifies that dry shampoo is okay to apply pre-coloring session. Coloring dirty hair is also fine, but be kind to your colorist and skip the just-worked-out sweatiness.     

The Consultation

Colorist Jack Howard uses his own hair-color Pinterest board to communicate with clients. Bringing in photos is encouraged. “It can be more helpful for your colorist if you bring in a picture of what you don’t like!” says Cunningham. Become acquainted with the universal hair-color chart used to describe natural and dyed hues: 1 is black, and 10 is the lightest possible platinum. Lastly, consider your cut before your color. “I always recommend first cutting hair into the style you’re looking for, then consider what color would accentuate that cut,” says Reyad Fritas, artistic director of Fekkai Fifth Avenue

Now that you know the pre-appointment basics, keep reading to get the full breakdown on all the different highlight options and which one is right for you, plus a roundup of all the products to keep your color going strong between appointments.
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Photo: Carlos Tischler/REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Warm Vs. Cool
If you’re going for a cool tone, avoid using the words “ash” or “ashy,” notes Suite Caroline owner Lena Ott. “When people emphasize ashiness, what I see is that their colorist is overtoning them and they don’t feel blonde enough,” she explains. She recommends saying “cool blonde” instead.

Neglecting the “blonde” part, if that is indeed the hue you’re going for, could potentially wipe out all the blonde in the toning process. “Saying you want a cool-blonde hue means you’ll be a level 8 or 9, and most of these women want to be a 10,” says Ott.

Howard says the quickest way to determine whether a client prefers a warm versus cool tone is to see what kind of jewelry they like. “If you prefer silver, then you’re going to prefer cool or neutral tones and if you like gold, generally you'll prefer warmer tones,” he says.

There are two ways of doing highlights: balayage (hair-painting) and foils.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages/RexUSA.
Technique 1: Balayage
This method is great if you like a low-maintenance look. “If a client hates coming in on a regular basis, it’s more likely that balayage is going to work for her,” says Howard. Ott solely applies highlights via balayage. “With balayage, you can pop the ends a bit more for a more natural effect,” she explains. Sally Hershberger colorist Dana Ionato also uses the method, calling it hair-painting.

“For a beachy-blonde look, I paint a 'V' shape on each small section of hair, working my way up from the nape of the neck toward the front of the head, working with the shape of the head,” explains Ionato. This leaves a chevron-shaped piece of base color at the root, lightening gradually toward the ends. She leaves 1.25-inch sections between each highlighted piece to avoid saturation.

For a lighter look achieved with balayage, Ionato paints a “W” shape onto the hair section, creating skinnier highlights. She highlights the hairline last, as it gets more wear-and-tear from restyling, and even your twice-daily face-wash session. “Here, I incorporate brighter pieces,” she says.
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Technique 2: Foils
Foil highlights are more noticeable than balayage, specifically at the roots and middle of the hair. “At the ends, the color blends,” says Ott. “At times, they may appear as almost visible rows,” notes Cunningham. “The upside of foil placement is the closeness and proximity to the scalp, which can create a fresh initial look, but shows a line of demarcation when growing out.”
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Photo: REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Blonde Hair: Babylights
Babylights are soft, fine highlights that are placed around the hairline. Howard created this look for model Dominika Grnova. “Dominika had been having a very heavy traditional foil and wanted to move away from this. We added babylights throughout the entire hair by creating very fine, delicate balayage pieces using platinum for a lovely, soft baby-blonde finish,” Howard says.
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Photo: Carlos Tischler/REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Blonde Hair: Champagne Blur
Redken’s new Champagne Blur is launching in salons this month. “The look features blurred highlights to create a cool-blonde look inspired by the shimmer of Champagne hues. It’s perfect for darker blondes that have existing highlights,” Cunningham says.
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Dark Hair: Base-Breaking
With any color, you need to talk with your colorist honestly about commitment, time, and cost, and have a clear plan of what you want him or her to do. “If you want to go lighter or add dimension, there are no hard rules,” says Howard. “I personally like to see light browns in dark, and I don’t like anything too bright near the root or around the face.” Howard notes that deep, dark browns that are cool in tone, like Kim Kardashian’s hue, are trending.

Base-breaking, mini lifts, and base-bumps all mean the same thing, basically lifting the root to soften the base color. This can be done between highlighting appointments to take the edge off incoming roots, to dye a base color to make highlights more seamless on dark hair, or to cover grays.

“Base-breaking services are perfect for in-between highlight appointments as they brighten your natural base color, taking the edge off the contrast between your natural color and your highlights,” says Cunningham. Redken recently launched Base Breakers from the Blonde Idol Professional Haircolor Collection.

Ott points out that on dark brunettes, softening the base color is important in order to blend the highlights. “It can look too frosted or rock-'n'-roll otherwise,” she explains. “A single-process and highlight will yield a softer, prettier look.”
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Photo: David Fisher/REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Dark Hair: Sombré
“Low-maintenance color has been a trend for a while and has now been amplified with sombré, a subtler and blended take on ombré,” says Cunningham. “Sombré is a softer, more wearable and natural, look that is flattering on everyone, but especially brunettes.”
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Photo: REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Brown Hair: Bronde
Howard says that few of his clients want warm tones, so he opts for highlights in cooler shades for his brunettes. “Bronde is still popular,” he says. Cunningham’s brunette clients want to lighten up their hue while keeping a natural look. “To achieve this, I paint on shades of bronze and gold at the ends to subtly lighten the hair without it turning brassy,” she says. If a highlighted brunette wants to increase depth, Ionato suggests skipping lowlights. “They’re just a quick fix; they oxidize and fade after two shampoos.”
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Photo: Picture Perfect/REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Brown Hair: Ecaille
“Ecaille” means tortoiseshell in French. Howard employs this technique via balayage on his brunette clients. “My clientele tend to like a very natural feel, so everything is very soft,” he says. “This is a diffused version of ombré,” says Ott. “Ombré was really heavy on the ends and dark on the root. Ecaille is like ombré, but the lightness is extended up higher.”
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Photo: Camilla Morandi/REX Shutterstock/RexUSA.
Red Hair: Chunking
“Lighter copper or blonde highlights on a redhead always look superb, but adding deeper reds can create depth and dimension,” says Howard. Lighter redheads with fair skin tones and light eyes should ask for a rich strawberry blonde with warm tones.

If you’ve noticed some Mallrats or Cindy Crawford circa 1992 highlights happening at your salon, you aren’t witnessing time travel (unfortunately). “This is a less subtle highlight, instead featuring more defined pieces, with less blending all over,” explains Ott. Chunkier highlights are heavy around the face, with fewer and lighter pieces in the back. They work on brunette hair, as well.
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Photo: Michael Buckner/BET/Getty Images.
Curly Hair: Pintura
Devachan’s highlighting technique, Pintura, is ideal for curly or textured hair. It’s like balayage in that it’s painted on without the use of foils. “With Pintura, we can get closer to the root and pinpoint exactly which curls we want to highlight,” says Devachan educator/colorist Edward Joseph. “The placement of the highlight is also very important. Curls may not always reflect light the same way that straight hair does, so painting individual curls can create contrast, which allows the color to display many hues."
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Product Picks: Sulfate-Free
Howard is a fan of Shu Uemura’s color-safe range of shampoos and conditioners. “You can cocktail their offerings, as the modern color client’s hair has different needs: The ends might have that balayage feel, so they need repair, and the roots might need volume,” he says.

“After a babylights or highlights service, it’s crucial to use sulfate-free shampoos, like Redken’s Blonde Idol or Color Extend Magnetics, to help lock in the color and keep your blonde looking fresh between appointments,” says Cunningham. “Color-depositing products also help to preserve tonality until the next salon visit; for my blondes, I also always recommend the Blonde Idol Custom-Tone adjustable color-depositing daily treatment in Violet (to cancel brassiness) or Gold (to add golden warmth).”

The sulfate-free DevaCare line contains vitamin C and orange-peel extract, antioxidants that help slow down color fading and hydrate after a color service. “The extra added citric oils and vitamin C help to add shine,” says Joseph.
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The Argument For Sulfates
But, not every colorist is all-board the no-sulfates train. Suite Caroline's Whitney Scott is pro-sulfate. “I believe sulfates serve an important purpose, like in a clarifying shampoo to achieve optimal cleansing of the scalp to prevent build-up, which leads to dandruff and other scalp irritations,” she says. Scott likes Christophe Robin’s Cleansing Mask with Lemon.
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Color-Depositing Hair Care
Ott cautions not to overdo it with the purple shampoos. “Then, you’ll be responsible for over-toning your hair, leaving it ashy and dulling the pretty flecks,” she explains. She is a fan of Oribe’s new Bright Blonde range.
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