As a salon blonde for the past 10 years (and a beauty editor), I still even find myself googling salon techniques from time to time. If any two color services still leave long-time salon goers scratching their heads in confusion, however, it’s highlights and lowlights. Though the popular services have been around for ages, there are still so many burning questions surrounding them.
Trying to decide between highlights vs. lowlights? Lori Zabel, Redken artist and Laura Gibson, L'Oréal Professionnel artist, weigh in on exactly what each service is and how to decide which one is right for you. Whether you’re looking to add depth to your blonde hair color or lighten and brighten your dark brown strands, keep scrolling for everything you need to know.
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What are highlights?
Highlights are small sections of hair that are lightened using foils or a hand-painted technique to contrast your base color, to add brightness and dimension throughout your mane. To achieve highlights, your colorist will need to use bleach to lift your hair up to two shades lighter.
“If your base color is brown, your highlights could be light brown or even blonde...If your base color is blonde, your highlights would incorporate lighter blonde shades,” Zabel says.
If a full head of highlights conjures up images of chunky blonde streaks, fear not! Your stylist will carefully lighten select sections to ensure your look is blended and seamless. A traditional application using foils isn’t the only way to get a highlighted look, however. Many popular highlighting techniques, such as balayage, can help you achieve the same result.
Wondering what the different types of highlights have to offer? Click here for our full guide.
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What are lowlights?
If highlights are pieces of hair dyed slightly lighter than the rest of the mane, then lowlights are their opposite. These strands should be at least a shade or two darker than your base color, contrasting against the rest of your hair.
Think of the way an object looks in bright sunlight. Without a sharp, deep black shadow to set it off, how could you possibly perceive depth? Lowlights create the same sense of depth, appearing like the shadowy under layer of your impossibly thick hair.
“A good way to describe the effect of lowlights is how you look better in a white t-shirt when you have a bit of a tan, then when you don’t,” Zabel explains. “It’s that same contrast that makes the lighter pieces of your hair look brighter, just like how your white t-shirt looks brighter against your tan.”
If you’ve opted for all over color but feel your strands are missing a bit of oomph, your colorist will probably recommend lowlights.
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Why does anyone need lowlights?
Nobody needs lowlights, but we highly recommend taking them for a spin. If your hair color seems to fall short of expectation or you’re not loving how thin it looks in photographs, lowlights are probably the right choice.
There’s a second, entirely different reason to consider making lowlights a part of your life: They can help make a new hair color more wearable. If you’re totally besotted with icy platinum hair but worry the shade will wash you out, lowlights can make the look less dramatic.
Instead of feeling like your mane is wearing you, you’ll be surprised at how wearable a transition shade makes the color.
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Are lowlights better for hair than highlights?
As you may have guessed, Gibson says that lowlights cause less damage to hair than highlights do.
“Lowlights typically are done with a demi-permanent or a permanent hair color, which can be less damaging on the hair than a highlight,” she explains.
Still, all hair coloring techniques leave the hair at least a little weaker. If you’re planning to schedule an appointment for lowlights, take this time to give your mane a little TLC. Step back on the heat styling, and treat your strands to an extra hair mask or two.
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Can you get highlights and lowlights at the same time?
If you’ve ever scrolled past a photo on Instagram of perfectly blended, multi-tonal strands, you’re probably looking at a blend of highlights and lowlights. According to Zabel, asking your stylist for both can give you a killer look with tons of depth.
“Adding dimension with lowlights gives your hair some texture and makes it look brighter,” Zabel explains. “It also helps create a more natural grow out, so it’s good for anyone who wants a low-maintenance look.”
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How do you care for highlights and lowlights?
As much as we love the look of highlights and lowlights, the popular color services can get pretty expensive. If you want to save yourself some time (and serious coins) spent at the salon, maintaining your highlights or lowlights with an at-home care routine is essential.
“The same way you wouldn’t wash a designer dress in dishwashing soap, [if] you invest in getting a great hair color, you should use products that will keep it that way,” Zabel says.
The pro recommends kicking off your routine with a shampoo and conditioner system formulated for color-treated hair like the Redken Color Extend Magnetics Shampoo and Conditioner. This non-stripping, lightweight system treats color-treated hair from the root to the core to the tip.
If your next salon appointment takes you into ash blonde territory, subbing in a purple shampoo and conditioner twice a week is a must to keep your hue brass-free. Zabel loves Redken Color Extend Blondage Shampoo and Conditioner. This toning and strengthening system will help keep your blonde brighter and healthier.
Any color service might make your strands look and feel weaker—particularly if your colorist uses bleach to lift your color. That’s why you should use a quality hair mask once a week to rejuvenate your strands a bit between touch-ups. Redken Color Extend Magnetics Mega Mask is a two-in-one hair mask that is both a treatment and care extender designed specifically for the color care of your color-treated hair.
Now that you have the full breakdown on highlights versus lowlights, you’re ready to head to your next color appointment.
Interested in trying highlights or lowlights for yourself? Use our salon locator to book an appointment with a stylist near you.