Remember when you got your first set of highlights in high school? You begged your parents for permission to lighten your strands because all the cool kids were doing it. When they finally agreed, you patiently sat in the hairdresser's chair as she teased your roots to oblivion, pasted each section with pungent bleach, and wrapped your head up in foils. A few hours later, you were transformed from regular, shmegular high-school kid to The Cowardly Lion.
But that was high school. Things have changed since then, including the way we highlight our hair. The chunky, colored stripes that were once all the rage have been replaced with natural, sun-kissed highlights.
If your "hair color inspo" Pinterest board consists of styles from celebrities like Beyoncé, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Hough, balayage (pronounced bah-lee-ahge) is the technique to ask for at the salon. Confused about what balayage is, what to ask your colorist for, or whether or not it will even work for you? We're breaking it all down, ahead. We spoke to top industry colorists, who explain everything you need to know about the holy-grail color technique.
What is balayage?
First, it's important to understand exactly what balayage is. Jaxcee, color director at Hair Rules Salon in New York City, breaks it down simply: "Balayage is freehand painting on the hair," she tells Refinery29. "The word 'balayage' means sweeping in French, and it gives you the most natural-looking highlights."
Before your color appointment, you and your stylist should go over photos that show exactly what you want. According to Nicole Leal, director at 901 Academy, "Balayage looks different on every head and isn't the same thing for every person. I always have a talk with my client and go through photos before getting started to get a grasp of what they're looking for."
Once the color process begins, sections of the hair are painted with bleach and separated with plastic wrap, instead of foils. "Plastic wrap is put in place to keep the lightener from drying out," Leal explains. Once your highlights are processed, your hair is then toned to your desired tint.
Is balayage the same as ombré?
One common misconception is that the terms "balayage" and "ombré" can be used interchangeably. "People come into the salon and say they want balayage but then show me photos of a style that looks more like an ombrè," Jaxcee says. The key difference between the two is that balayage is a hair-color technique, whereas ombré is a style.
"Ombré is a style where the lightness is concentrated at the ends of your hair," she explains. "You technically can use balayage — the freehand paint method — to ombré your hair." But with balayage, the bleach begins about two inches away from the root for a grown-out effect. "I think they both spiked in popularity at the same time, which is why they're used in the same context," Jaxcee says.
What’s the difference between balayage and highlights?
Balayage is a form of highlighting. As previously mentioned, the balayage technique focuses the color a couple inches from the roots. But traditional highlights are usually placed directly at the roots, according to Felicia Dosso of Nunzio Saviano. "Traditional highlights also require some teasing, or back combing, of the hair and fully coating the shaft with lightener," she says.
Leal recommends thinking of traditional highlights as having less dimension throughout the shaft and slightly smudged roots (if any at all). Whereas, balayage highlights are more dimensional and blended throughout the shaft.
Another key difference, according to Jaxcee, is that balayage applies color only to the top layer of hair to achieve a sun-kissed look. "With traditional highlights, color penetrates directly through the hair thanks to heat from the foils and the natural heat from your scalp, which creates a bolder look."
There is a version of the balayage process that uses foil instead of plastic wrap, even though it's not a requirement. It's called foilyage. "Foilyage is great for people with previously colored hair," Jaxcee explains. "I also love the method for my clients with curly hair because it gives me more control over where I want the color to fall."
How much does balayage cost?
Like most professional services, you can expect to cough up some cash. At most New York City salons, a partial highlight starts at $100 and a full-head of highlights ranges from $250 and up.
How long does balayage last?
"The best thing about balayage is that it's so naturally painted on the hair, it still manages to look great as it grows out," Jaxcee says. Since the color in a balayage service is usually more concentrated from mid-shaft to ends, it allows you to grow your hair out without any heavy lines of demarcation or noticeable difference at the roots. "Because the color is so far from your roots, it already looks like color that has been flawlessly grown out," says Dosso.
If you're a stickler about your highlights looking vibrant at all times, Leal recommends getting them enhanced every three months. However, the general consensus for balayage touch-ups is once or twice a year. However, between appointments, experts recommend staying up-to-date with regular trims, deep conditioning treatments, and glosses to keep hair healthy.
Can you do balayage on short hair?
Though long hair may seem like the perfect canvas for a colorist to paint, the technique can be used on any color, curl type, or cut — including a razor-sharp bob. "With a bob, the balayage highlights should be blended carefully with the root tone, otherwise the whole head of hair is going to look single-process," Zeeuw says.
What does blonde balayage look like?
If you've ever looked back at childhood photos of your blonde hair and wished for your untouched color back, balayage can help you get there. "For people with blonde hair, balayage will make your hair look naturally highlighted," says Jaxcee, almost as if you spent weeks outdoors at summer camp. "The exact tones of your hair color is up to you. Talk to your stylist about whether you want honey, strawberry, or platinum-looking highlights." Celebrity hairstylist George Papanikolas adds that blonde balayage should focus the highlights around the halo of the face for the most natural-looking dimension.
What does brown balayage look like?
Blondes aren't the only ones that can benefit from balayage. You can create equally natural-looking highlights if your hair is naturally brunette. According to Linda de Zeeuw, a colorist at Brooklyn's Rob Peetoom Salon, people with a brunette base should lift their highlights no more than four shades from the root color. You can focus your brunette balayage around the front of your face or keep them scattered throughout the ends if you want to give your chocolate color a subtle sun-kissed effect.