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Balayage vs highlights vs ombre

Balayage Vs. Highlights Vs. Ombre: What's The Difference?

If you're on the fence about whether balayage, ombre, or highlights are the right coloring method for you, here's everything you need to decide. Plus, 24 standout looks you’ll be eager to try.

From dip dye to babylights, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest trendy hair color techniques. While some are just fads, a few that have managed to stand the test of time. Case in point: balayage, highlights, and ombre—three hair color techniques consistently in style. 

Everywhere you look, someone is slaying balayage, highlights, or ombre locks, and sometimes the looks begin to blend together. Your fave celeb’s dark brown hair looks highlighted—but it could be balayage...or is it actually ombre? 

If you’re not sure how to tell the difference between balayage versus highlights versus ombre, you’re not alone. Thankfully, L’Oréal Professionnel global brand ambassador and stylist Min Kim is here to put an end to that. She’s breaking down what balayage, highlights, and ombré are and the major differences between the three, including which is most expensive, how to care for and maintain each technique, and who should opt for which color service. 

What’s the difference between balayage, highlights, and ombre?

Kim says the major difference between each technique is how the stylist applies the color to achieve the desired final look. 

“The major difference between balayage and highlights is the softness in the regrowth...The dark or negative space within a balayage application really allows the highlight to shine and pop—you need the dark to see the light—and saturation lives on the mid-length and ends versus highlights where the entire section [is saturated] in a foil.”

Balayage and ombre are often combined, but there are still a few slight differences between the application techniques. 

“Both [looks] can be achieved with balayage, but an ombre has less dimension through the mids and ends versus a traditional balayage where dimension plays throughout the hair,” Kim says. 

Highlights and ombre have the least in common as highlights are applied from roots to ends, while ombre focuses on lightening your strands from the mid-length to the ends. 

Now that you understand the differences between each technique, you need to know what they are. Lucky for you, Kim says their defining traits are fairly easy to identify.

Good hair day by @ellejwoods.

What is Balayage?

Balayage is one of  the most loved hair coloring techniques, and for a good reason. Kim says balayage is suitable for all skin tones, hair colors, and textures, making it universally flattering on nearly everyone. With balayage, you also have the added benefit of being able to contour your face shape and highlight facial features. If that sounds appealing, balayage may be perfect for you.

“Balayage is a freehand method of sweeping lightener onto the surface of the hair,” Kim explains. “It’s a vertical application which keeps the highlights from disappearing through the mids/ends and allows for a graceful grow-out.” 


8 Balayage Ideas To Try Now

If you’re searching for a balayage style to inspire your next salon appointment, we’ve rounded up eight of our favorite balayage looks.

Golden Balayage

When you think of balayage, golden blonde balayage is usually the first hue that comes to mind, and for a good reason—it looks good on just about everyone. 

Good hair day by @alextreyhair.

Copper Balayage

Consider this copper balayage if you're a natural redhead looking to bring dimension to your color. The lightened ends will bring new life to your style while allowing your natural color to shine through at your roots. 

Good hair day by @kenziedoeshair_.

Silver Balayage

Contemplate silver balayage if you’re absolutely obsessed with silver hair but aren’t ready to go entirely metallic. One caveat about this hue is its tendency to pick up yellow or brassy tones, but investing in a good neutralizing shampoo like Redken Color Extend Graydiant Shampoo for Gray Hair can keep it shimmering and bright.

Auburn Balayage

In search of the perfect warm-weather color but don’t want to give up your precious dark strands? Look no further. This auburn balayage is the ideal way to transition your hair between the two.

Good hair day by @mikaatbhc.

Golden-Caramel Balayage

Warm, sunny streaks add a youthful dimension to jet-black locks. A super shiny finish will make the contrast of these highlights pop, so be sure to apply a shine-enhancing serum like Pureology Style + Protect Shine Bright Taming Serum onto dry, styled hair. The brand’s exclusive Antifade Complex® helps protect the vibrancy and shine of salon color.

Good hair day by @ajaonyourmane.

Caramel and Plum Balayage

The subtle infusion of violet-tipped ends elevates the edge of a more traditional caramel balayage on dark hair.

Good hair day by @shell.vega.

Pink on Pink Balayage 

Balayage is universally loved because it’s such a low-maintenance technique to maintain. If you’re prepared for a balayage look that requires a bit more work, consider this on-trend pink balayage. Pink is a notoriously difficult color to uphold, but those willing to do the work will be rewarded with the most photogenic hair ever. 

Good hair day by @konstantinos_hair.

Greige Balayage

A stunning fusion of gray and beige in a greige balayage strikes a balance between cool ash and warm gold tones. 

Since we’re not ones to gatekeep, here’s the secret to scoring a gorgeous shade of greige: the Redken ShadesEQ Ash Gold Series! These three new in-salon glazes subtly manipulate hair color to provide the perfect combination of cool ash and warm gold tones for a smoky, beige finish. 

What are Highlights?

Highlights also look great on everyone, but the final look is a bit different from balayage. 

“Highlights are best for those who want a more blended overall result with less dimension,” Kim explains. “It’s also suitable for everyone but especially best for clients with finer textures as it gives body to limp strands. With traditional highlights, hair is saturated within a foil and lends itself to a more visible regrowth.”

8 Highlight Ideas to Try Now

If highlights are more to your taste, look no further than these on-trend styles. 

Good hair day by @globalcurlz.

Red Highlights

When you think of highlights, the first color that comes to mind is usually blonde. As much as we love blonde highlights (we’ll get to those in just a minute), your highlights can be any color you want—even red!

Good hair day by @fleshlickinglady.

Rainbow Highlights

Why settle on one color when you can have them all? Rainbow highlights are a fun and creative way to display all of your favorite hair colors without completely changing up your hair color. 

Good hair day by @prettylittleombre.

Honey Highlights 

If you’re looking to add warmth around your face, consider some strategically placed honey highlights. These face-framing highlights will make you look like you just returned from vacation, even as you sit at a desk. 

Dark Blonde Highlights

If you’ve always imagined going blonde but can’t wrap your mind around parting with your precious brunette locks, opt for blonde highlights instead.

Good hair day by @haircolorkilla.

Caramel Highlights

These bright, candy-inspired highlights are an effortless way to bring depth and dimension to very dark hair. 

Good hair day by @shear_envytupelo.

Blonde and Copper Highlights

Merging warm and cool tones of both blonde and copper throughout red hair makes a gorgeous standout statement that won’t soon be forgotten.

Good hair day by @emmastylistt.

Crimson Peekaboo Highlights

Peekaboo highlights are when color, like this crimson shade, is applied to your bottom layer of hair. When you run your fingers through your hair, the bright streaks will “peek” through your top layer of hair to reveal a pop of color. Think of it as a fresh and fun twist on the same-old highlighting routine!

Good hair day by @talisaandco.

Mauve Highlights

Your colorist will combine pink and purple pigments to create a colorful mauve hue that strikes a harmony between a subtle shade and a fashion color.  

What is Ombre?

Kim says ombre hair tends to have the least dimension. However, it can be customized to be soft and subtle or edgy and dramatic. The choice is yours. 

“Ombre is a technique where the color transitions from dark to light, from roots to ends,” the stylist explains. 

8 Ombre Ideas To Try Now

If you’re looking for a more dramatic style, consider these ombre looks. 

Good hair day by @styledbyquoizel.

Black to Honey Ombre

If you love the look of ombre but want a more understated style, go for black to honey ombre. These colors seamlessly melt into each other for a universally flattering style. 

Black to Red Ombre

Go bold with this black to red ombre that will turn heads everywhere you go. 

Good hair day by @hellsbellshair.

Blonde to Black Ombre

Itching to add some major flair into blonde locks? A blonde to black ombre may be just what you need to take your look to a whole new level. 

Good hair day by @hairbysabrinajean.

Blonde to Purple Ombre

A purple ombre is a gorgeous look for fair-haired ladies who want to try an accent color without overruling their entire ‘do. Great news for those still on the fence: A lavender color-depositing conditioner like Biolage Professional Lavender Color Depositing Conditioner lets you experiment with a temporary wash of lavender before plunging into the real thing.

Good hair day by @hairbymermzs.

Red to Blonde Ombre

We’re so used to seeing ombres that transition from light to dark, so why not switch things up by placing a darker red near the crown and applying a brighter blonde throughout the ends?

Good hair day by @hairbybeesalon.

Blue Ombre

People often use ombre as a way to hold on to their natural hair color, but it looks absolutely stunning in all-over fantasy shades. This gradient blue will look dazzling all year long. 

Good hair day by @lyndadidit.

Hot Pink to Orange Ombre

If you love sunsets, you won’t be able to get enough of this stunning hot pink to orange ombre. This look takes it one step further by incorporating a violet to magenta melt around the face. The more colors, the better! To stop the vivid hues from going down the drain with every wash, enlist the help of Matrix Total Results Keep Me Vivid Sulfate-Free Shampoo. The sulfate-free, gentle shampoo gently cleanses, so hair color remains vibrant.

Good hair day by @folliclefatale.

Black to Multi-Colored Ombre

If you’re a bit indecisive, this multicolored gradient is perfect for you. All you have to do is pick your favorite colors, then sit back, and let your colorist get to work.

Should I get balayage, ombre or highlights?

It’s completely up to you! Some things to consider when choosing the coloring technique best for you are the cost and upkeep, as well as your desired outcome. Balayage and ombre are great options for those with virgin hair or who want to dip their toes into coloring without the commitment, while highlights are ideal for those seeking to add a bit of brightness and depth to their dull or darker strands.

Is balayage better than highlights?

Whether or not balayage is better than highlights depends on your personal preference. They’re both great ways to update your look and add dimension and movement to your color. If you’re looking for the lowest maintenance option, go with balayage. If you’re willing to dedicate a little more time to caring for your color, lean into highlights.

Is balayage more expensive than highlights?

While prices vary from salon to salon, balayage is typically more expensive than highlights. Balayage can create a total hair transformation, but highlights just add a pop of color and dimension to your mane, which requires much less time, training, and dye. 

Can you get balayage if you have highlights?

Yes! You can get balayage if you have highlights. The beauty of balayage is that it is all about blending. Your colorist will work with you to ensure your new color perfectly blends with your existing highlights.

Is balayage healthier than highlights?

Either coloring technique can be achieved with minimal damage when done by a seasoned pro, but balayage and ombre are generally more at risk of damage than highlights. Whereas traditional highlights usually only lighten up new growth near the roots, balayage and ombre continue to further lighten any already-lightened hair during touchups. No matter the coloring technique you choose, you can keep damage at bay in-between appointments with the help of a heavy-duty repair system like Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate Bundle. Formulated with citric acid and a concentrated bonding complex, it reinforces weakened bonds to help build strength and resiliency and rebalances your hair's natural pH levels for healthier-looking, stronger hair.

Is ombre or balayage better for straight hair?

Highlights and balayage are perfect for weaving depth throughout all hair types, but ombre is a bit trickier. Since ombre has a harsher line of demarcation and a more pronounced contrast between shades, the two-toned style can look a bit more unnatural without waves or curls to break it up. If you typically wear your hair sleek and straight, highlights and balayage may be the way to go for a more seamless-looking finish. 

How do you care for balayage, ombre, and highlights?

While the techniques may vary, balayage, highlights, and ombre are all color services, so there isn’t much difference in how you should care for them after heading home from the salon. Kim suggests asking your stylist to help you customize an at-home hair care routine based on your individual hair needs. 

If you left the salon without any guidance from your stylist, Kim recommends swapping your regular shampoo and conditioner for a duo formulated to protect your color. The resveratrol-enriched L’Oréal Professionnel’s Vitamino Resveratrol Color Radiance Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner are great options to keep color intact.

Good hair day by @LOrealPro.

What is the maintenance like for balayage, ombre, and highlights?

Caring for balayage, highlights, and ombre may be the same, but there is a slight difference in how often you should expect to head back to the salon. Because balayage is hand-painted in a way that avoids harsh lines, it is a very low maintenance color technique. Kim says that clients who choose balayage usually head back to the salon every three months for a touch-up. 

When you combine balayage with ombre, your color requires even less maintenance as the balayage seamlessly blends with the ombre. When your hair is properly cared for, Kim says you can often go longer than three months in between touch-ups. If your ombre has a more prominent line of demarcation, you may need to head back to the salon every four to six weeks for a touchup. 

Highlights are the most high maintenance option because the color runs from your roots to your ends, making your natural color very visible as your hair begins to grow out. If you want to keep your highlights in tip-top shape, expect to head back to the salon every six weeks for a touchup. 

Depending on your hair history, desired final look, and how much time you’re willing to commit to maintaining your ‘do, the three techniques can be combined or mixed and matched for a completely custom final look.

Now that you know the difference between balayage, highlights, and ombre, you’re equipped with all the knowledge you need to pick a new flawless color! 

Interested in preserving your new ‘do with tailored recommendations for your hair hue and type? Browse for all of the salon-grade items to add into your routine.

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