Everything You Need To Know About Highlights & Lowlights

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images.
Plenty of people go their whole life without highlights — in fact, a lot of people make it their signature and it looks good (think: Demi Moore's jet-black mane or Lady Gaga's platinum blonde bob). Still, there's a reason why everyone wants highlights. Tl;dr: Highlights add dimension and movement into hair that otherwise feels flat and stagnant. It's a total game-changer.
As brightening and beautiful as they are, highlights aren't the only way you can add life back into your hair. As popular as the coloring technique is, there exists another option called lowlights. But what's the difference? We set out to answer that question, asking a crew of coloring pros all of our burning questions. Ahead, the difference between highlights and lowlights — and which color option will require the lowest level of maintenance.

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 (think: foils and balayage), it essentially refers to the pieces of hair that are lighter than your base color; lowlights are darer. Courtney Brennan, master colorist at Spoke & Weal Boston, describes highlighting the hair as lifting the base color, while lowlights deposit darker pigment to create depth, dimension, and movement.
Brennan notes that you'll be able to discuss your expectations during a complimentary consultation service appointment. Based off your personal mood board, you both can decide the size and amount of highlights — or lowlights — would work best for you. Bottom line: No color service is a one-size-fits-all kind of deal.

How do you know if you need lowlights vs. highlights?

“Someone who wants to see their current color lighter or with more dimension should get highlights” says Brennan. Lowlights, on the other hand, are a great option for a number of reasons. For example, if a client has over-highlighted their hair, then lowlights are a great option. The darkening technique is also popular during seasonal changes when someone wants to warm up their old highlights, says Brennan. Lowlights could also be used to blend harsh ombré or balayage highlights.
Lowlights are also a fun option for someone who feels as though the bleached highlights have left their hair dulled and over-processed. “Adding color back into the hair will add shine to over-bleached hair,” explains Brennan. But beware: If you use lowlights to revive over-processed hair, invest in a color-safe shampoo and conditioner because the hair's porous nature will cause the color to fade fast.
Of course, 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'll often put highlights and lowlights next to each on a client to breakup the color and make the brighter color pop. Additionally, this helps achieve the goal of creating something that looks natural, like it's bee that way your entire life. (See: L.A.'s favorite lived-in color trend.)

Can lowlights cover gray hair?

“I have used lowlights with guests who want to blend their gray hairs,” says Brennan. “It is a softer grow-out than a single, all-over color process.” She does warn that opting for lowlights to cover gray hair is only recommended for a client who doesn’t mind seeing their gray hair, because, as it fades, it will pop out — sort of like silvery highlights.
Trygstad notes that it can be a diligent process. Keep in mind that not all gray hair is the same color, so different dye levels may be required to get your gray cover-up just right.

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 to come back every two-four months for a touch-up, lowlights can last months. “Sometimes, lowlights can be done only once or twice and never have to be touched-up again,” she says. “A common pattern is clients will add lowlights after the summer to help transition from summer to fall and winter. Many of those guests choose to do this once a year because lowlights can last a very long time with minimal upkeep.”
“Blondes who prefer to stay bright and light all over should come in every eight-12 weeks,” Brennan advises. “Platinum blondes or heavily-highlighted hair may need to be maintained every four-six weeks, depending on how quickly the hair grows.”

Will highlights damage your hair?

While neither lowlights and highlights services technically require bleach, it is often used during highlighting treatments to lift and lighten hair. Brennan notes that a high-lift lightener (bleach-free permanent 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 it's lifting any of the color out, but instead depositing color back in (usually with a semi- or demi-permanent dye).
Still, dyeing your hair can cause long-term dryness and lack of moisture retention, so invest in a hydrating regimen if you prefer your hair to be glossy and strong vs. dull and brittle.

More from Hair

R29 Original Series