"Beauty writer and woman of many hair colours," reads my Finsta bio. It’s true: In the last five years I’ve gone from ice-cool blonde to grey, caramel, deep mocha and back again. So when my hair inevitably started snapping off at the crown and became too damaged to dry naturally, I chopped it all off and imposed a dye ban in the hope of nursing it back to health.
Fast-forward to now and I’m ready to dye my healthy, virgin hair once again. Responsibly, this time.
What is pearl balayage?
The term 'pearl balayage' piqued my interest because it sounded like a gentle, low-maintenance way to reignite my love of dye transformations. A deeper search told me that it marries warmer tones with the cooler, ashier tones of my grey-haired past, which I adored.
"Balayage is the technique that gives a more blended type of highlight," John Spanton, senior colourist at ARKIVE salon by Adam Reed, told me. "It should seamlessly melt into your base colour." So where does the pearl come into it? "If you think of a pearl, it’s kind of multitonal — it’s got blues, greens and pinks," said John. "A pearl balayage gives a real luminous pearlescence without being flat or murky." It should leave your hair looking vibrant and healthy, like this colour by @fgdolls on Instagram. It's a welcome contrast to my days of over-bleaching to the point of irreversible hair damage.
My previous love affair with over-toning and over-highlighting would now be viewed as dated. Effortlessness has well and truly taken over: The internet is obsessed with the clean girl aesthetic, subdued latte tones and styles like 'lazy girl hair'. Celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenners and Hailey Bieber have been spotted sporting richer, deeper tones with less contrasting highlights — styles that scream low maintenance and align with the quiet luxury trend. Pearl balayage encapsulates all of this: It’s easy to maintain, doesn’t look too 'done' and grows out without giving way to a stark block of roots. It brightens and lightens but it’s subtle — like you’ve been kissed by the sun — and it combines myriad tones, just like naturally lightened hair would.
What happens during pearl balayage?
John uses L'Oréal Professionnel toners to achieve the look, counteracting hair’s natural warmth from the lightening process and making way for an iridescent shine and tone to come through. The result is a "champagney, beigey, biscuity colour that’s really pretty and still cool-toned without being really ashy or dull," John told me.
The overall look is soft and blended with little peeks of lighter tones that play well with your natural hair colour. "For me, balayage is as much about the dark as it is the light," John added. "You need a dark background for the light to pop." Less is more, he told me as I sat in the salon chair. "I don’t want to do too much lightening underneath. We can just add some subtle face-framing to brighten it all up."
What’s the pearl balayage process like?
First, you’ll have a consultation with your colourist. Prepare to take their opinion into account. "We’re artists," said John, "and we need a certain level of freedom to create the best looks. Anyone can replicate a picture." I confess I bounded into the salon with at least four pictures in tow. Celebrity colourist Nicola Clarke at John Frieda told me that images are the best way forward but this advice is more applicable if you aren’t sure which service you want. I knew I wanted pearl balayage so it was best to let John decide how to go about making this happen. "Let’s just see how well your hair lifts and then we can decide what tone to go with," he told me. Considering I recently gave someone full artistic licence over my brows and left the salon crying, this was a tough pill to swallow.
After the consultation, John began lightening my hair. He chose to use foils over a freehand balayage technique. "When you’ve got darker hair, there’s a limit to the amount of lift you’d get freehand," said John. "The darker the hair, the harder to lift. When you’re using foil, it incubates the product and keeps a little bit of heat in from the body and the scalp so the lightener develops a little bit more productively. Freehand slows down the lightening process, which can be useful, but if you want to see more of a noticeable lightening on darker bases, then foil is the way to go."
Once your hair’s been lightened, it’s time for the toner or hair gloss — essentially a topper — which is what gives you the pearl-like look. "The first part is just lift and the second part is character. Balayage is actually just the technique, and the pearl is the tone over the top," said John.
Will pearl balayage suit you?
Pearl balayage will work on pretty much anyone as you can tailor the colour according to your skin tone, hair texture and style. "You can tone as lightly or as heavily as you want to," John explained, "so if you want to allow a little bit of the natural warmth from the lightening process to shine through, you can tone more lightly." (Take inspiration from this colour by Valentina Mihaela on Instagram.) A little bit of violet will customise a cooler result for a cooler skin tone, said John, but cooler shades work on skin tones across the board. Look to this pearly hue created by colourist Eric Medeiros, or this one by colourist, educator and stylist Courtney Treyvaud.
How do you maintain pearl balayage?
This hair colour is so low maintenance. Even as a beauty editor, I want my hair routine to be easy and speedy, which makes this the perfect look for me. John made sure to leave my roots alone, especially at the front (money pieces are out, you heard it here first) so that I could go months without a refresh. Even then, a refresh would be more about reinvigorating the hair with shine and vibrancy than shifting the lightened hair up a notch to keep up with growth. A quick tone (a colour-correcting process using a product similar to a purple or silver shampoo) between balayage appointments is ideal. "You might get balayage done three or four times a year but you can tone at any point in between those visits for an instant refresh to keep on top of health and shine," said John.
If your strands are brighter and blonder than mine, be sure to add purple shampoos and conditioners to your routine. "Violet stops the underlying warmth from peeking through," said John. As a gal with incredibly warm-toned natural hair and a historic penchant for grey, I can confidently recommend Fanola No Yellow Shampoo, £7, which is a miracle-worker.
Which haircut works best with pearl balayage?
I knew I was going to have to switch up my haircut, too. Six months is a long time to go without a trim and my ends were looking pretty dry. Andrew Plester, the stylist at ARKIVE who was tasked with chopping my hair, confirmed my thoughts. "For your colour to have that maximum impact, you need to have the full works today," he told me. I had to say goodbye to my beloved shag. "Instead of overly layering your hair around the crown, we can go for more shagginess around the face," Andrew said. "If you add too many layers to that crown area, the balayage [might look] a little disjointed because the layers tend to sit just above the blonde and it’ll appear patchy."
In the spirit of letting the artists do what they do best, I trusted Andrew to slightly un-shag my hair to allow the balayage to shine. It was the right thing to do — the result was seamless and still had a lot of bounce and movement. To achieve this look, he used a combination of precision cutting with razoring, which gave the illusion of a more layered cut with a blunter end, all without taking off too much hair.
Pearl balayage can work with many different cuts. Andrew said that it works on pretty much any length except very short hair. "You need enough hair to have a little flow. Some layering and graduation round the face will really show the colour at its best." Styling matters, too. "Add texture with your styling, whether with beachy waves or full-on glamorous curls — movement will really open up the hair and make the most of the light and depth that’s so beautiful about the technique."
Where can I get pearl balayage?
You can treat yourself to a pearl balayage at any L'Oréal Professionnel salon, though ARKIVE by Adam Reed is my favourite. I spent so long trying to reset my hair that I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a colour change. I’m still shocked every time I look in a mirror. It’s such a subtle alteration but it makes a huge difference.
The colour switches in different lights (just like a real pearl!) and I’m finding grey hairs amid more coppery ones, which is so fun and pretty. I feel like this colour is the hair equivalent of glazed doughnut nails, shimmering and changing colour with movement. As a self-professed hair-colour chameleon, I’m surprised to say that I think I’ll be rocking this colour for a while yet.
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