Plenty of people go their whole lives without getting highlights — in fact, a lot of celebrities have made stunning single-process color their signature (think: Demi Moore's jet-black mane or Lady Gaga's platinum blonde bob). Still, there's a reason why everyone considers highlights at least once in their life. A few well-placed streaks can add dimension and movement into hair that otherwise feels flat and stagnant. They're a total game-changer.
But highlights aren't the only way you can add life back into your hair. In fact, another underrated option exists: lowlights. What's the difference? We set out to answer that question, asking a crew of coloring pros to clear up any confusion. We discovered that each technique has the ability to uplift your natural color for a fresh look, but one is a lot more low-maintenance than the other.
Ahead, learn how to distinguish between highlights and lowlights — and find out which color technique is the best option for you.
What’s the difference between lowlights and highlights?
While the word “highlight” is a bit of an umbrella term that encapsulates a range of coloring techniques (including foils and balayage), it essentially refers to the pieces of hair that are lighter than your base color. On the opposite end of the spectrum, lowlights are darker than your all-over hue. Courtney Brennan, master colorist at Spoke & Weal in Boston, notes that highlighting requires lifting the base color with bleach or lightener, while lowlights deposit darker pigment to create dimension.
Brennan explains that highlights and lowlights aren't one-size-fits-all. She recommends booking a complimentary consultation with your colorist before your service to check out your mood board, review your inspiration, and execute a foolproof plan.
How do you know if you need lowlights vs. highlights?
“Someone who wants to see their current color lighter or with brighter dimension should get highlights,” says Brennan. Lowlights, on the other hand, are a great option to repair hair-color mistakes or revive grown-out color. For example, if a client has over-highlighted their hair, then lowlights are ideal to add depth and increase shine. Got old ombré or balayage highlights? Lowlights can fix those, too. Your colorist can add in darker colors to soften any drastic lines between the lighter color and your natural hair — essentially serving as "mid-lights."
Of course, there are some cases you don't have to choose between the two. Ryan Trygstad, celebrity hairstylist and owner of Shelter Salon, tells us that he often puts highlights and lowlights next to each other to break up the color and make the lighter shade pop. This achieves the goal of creating a color that looks natural, as if it's been that way your entire life.
Can lowlights cover gray hair?
Yes, lowlights can cover gray hair. While highlights and single-process color tend to be popular options for those looking to disguise grays, Brennan confirms that she's used the low-lighting technique on her clients. Lowlights offer an easier grow-out phase because, even as the silver begins to peek through, it looks more blended with the base color than a brassy highlight would. In this case, your colorist will most likely create a lowlight mix that matches your virgin or base hair color.
How often do you need to touch-up lowlights and highlights?
Lowlights tend to be more low-maintenance than highlights. Brennan usually suggests her clients with highlights come back every 2-4 months for a touch-up. “Blondes who prefer to stay bright and light all over should come in every 8-12 weeks,” Brennan advises. “Platinum blondes or heavily-highlighted hair may need to be maintained every 4-6 weeks, depending on how quickly the hair grows.”
On the other hand, lowlights can last several months, depending on how your hair holds onto color and your personal styling routine. “Sometimes, lowlights can be done only once or twice, and never have to be touched-up again,” she says. “My clients will add lowlights after the summer to help transition to fall and winter because lowlights can last a very long time with minimal upkeep."
Will highlights damage your hair?
While neither lowlights and highlights technically require bleach, it is often used during highlighting treatments to lift and lighten the hair. Brennan notes that a high-lift lightener (bleach-free color designed to permanently lighten your hair) may be used in place of bleach to create lighter pieces of hair, but bleach will likely be used for anyone who has naturally dark or previously-colored hair.
With that said, frequent touch-ups involving high volumes of bleach can lead to a loss of elasticity and, ultimately, breakage. Lowlights tend to cause less stress on the hair because they don't lift the color out, but deposit darker color back in (usually with a semi- or demi-permanent dye). Still, dyeing your hair can cause long-term dryness and lack of moisture, so invest in a hydrating regimen if you prefer your hair to be glossy and strong.