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

Color Techniques

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

14 March 2018
photo of stylist applying highlights on woman's hair
Jelani Addams Rosa

Jelani Addams Rosa

Associate Editor, Hair.com

As an employee of L'Oréal, Jelani brings her knowledge and passion for hair care to Hair.com. Before joining the Hair.com team, she spent time at Celebuzz, Seventeen, and Cosmo for Latinas.

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

Everywhere you look someone is rocking balayage, highlighted, or ombre locks and sometimes the looks begin to blend together. Your fave celebs hair looks like it’s been highlighted—but it could be balayage—or is it actually ombre?

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

What defines balayage, highlights, and ombre?

Before you can 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.

“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 and ends, allowing for a graceful grow out.”

“With traditional highlights, hair is saturated within a foil and lends itself to a more visible regrowth,” she continues before adding, “Ombre is a technique where the color transitions from dark to light, from roots to ends.”

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

What are the significant differences between balayage, highlights, and ombre?

Kim says the major difference between each technique is how the color is applied 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 vs. highlights where the entire section [is saturated] in a foil.

Min Kim

The balayage technique is often combined with ombre, but there are still a few subtle differences between the application.

“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.

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 your hair after you head 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 suggests adding a repairing and strengthening hair mask to your hair care routine like L'Oréal Professionnel Serie Expert Absolut Repair Lipidium or Inforcer. She also recommends swapping your regular shampoo and conditioner for a duo that is formulated to protect your color like L'Oréal Professionnel Serie Expert Vitamino Color A-OX shampoo and conditioner.

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 on average her clients who’ve opted for 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 seamless blends the ombre which keeps the largest concentration of color on your ends. When properly cared for Kim says you can often go longer than three months in between touch-ups. If your ombre has more prominent demarcation, you may need to head back to the salon every four to six weeks for a touch-up.

Highlights are the most high maintenance option because the color runs from your roots to your ends, making it 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 touch-up.

Who should opt for balayage, highlights, or ombre?

If you’re willing to commit to caring for your colored locks, choosing the right one for you just depends on the final look you’re hoping to achieve.

Balayage seems to be the most loved technique of the moment, 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 is something that sounds appealing, balayage may be perfect for you.

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.”

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.

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.

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