If you lived through the early ‘00s, you surely remember an entire decade of tiger stripe highlights. Pop stars with stringy extensions wore platinum streaks in black hair, while practically every middle schooler at the time tried to convince their parents to let them do the same.
Thankfully, the era of bad highlights is over because colorists like George Papanikolas, Matrix celebrity stylist, have pioneered the art of flattering, subtle color. He’s known for warm, beautiful hair colors that look sun-brightened and laidback. Instead of stripy or obvious highlights, his work is so subtle no one could tell you that the variation of your ash blonde or dark brown hair color didn’t happen naturally.
If you prefer a more soft life approach to your salon visits and at-home color care, stick around. Papanikolas is about to lay down some undeniable truths about getting flattering, natural-looking highlights that are less “high school prom” and more “beach babe.”
Mimic the natural highlights you had as a child.
If you’re anything like us, you probably have at least one relative who regularly visits the hair salon to have their stylist recreate the color they had as a teenager. This isn’t some flashy neon ‘do, just an attempt at restoring luster and covering up the grays.
Think of that color technique when it comes to natural-looking highlights. According to Papanikolas, the best hair color is the kind that mimics the way your hair looked as a child. Experts affectionately refer to these extremely subtle streaks as “babylights.” These highlights are fine and natural-looking and focus more on adding dimension to the hair rather than creating a whole new look.
Remember that more is not always better when it comes to hair color—stick to subtle, and you’ll be just fine.
Contouring isn’t just for your face anymore.
Just like the traditional facial contouring we’ve spent hours trying to perfect, hair contouring is a technique in which a stylist uses highlights and lowlights to create shadows and depth around the face, building the illusion of your desired face shape. Think of it as mimicking how you might apply highlighter to the highest points of your face to create a focal point while brushing dark powder under your cheekbones to build shadows.
The key to nailing this look is understanding how color can create the illusion of depth, and a skilled pro will point you in the right direction. For Papanikolas, that means hair color that’s darkest at its root to build dimension.
“Staying within two shades [of the base color] at the root area looks the softest and most natural, and no more than four shades lighter at the ends keeps the contrast soft and blended,” he explains.
Once you’re set on dark pieces, it’s time for the highlights. Papanikolas recommends keeping your bright streaks to the places on the head that are most exposed to light.
“Highlights should only accent the hair and focus on where the sun would naturally hit it,” Papanikolas says. “[They] naturally happen in three main areas—face frame, natural part, and ends.”
Luckily, once colored, hair contouring involves way less work than the makeup kind!
Stick to a color that’s close to your base.
“Highlights can be done on all hair colors, but not all base colors can have the same highlights,” he explains. “Red hair can't be approached the same way you approach a natural dark blonde. For red and brunettes, you want their base color to be the dominant majority, with the highlights as the soft accents.”
And another thing: Although most stylists will talk about warm and cool tones until you’re exhausted, Papanikolas recommends not taking your accent pieces too far one way or another.
“Most people look best in neutral tones,” he says. “[They’re] universally flattering.”
As with every rule, there are a few exceptions. Papanikolas likes to see slightly cool-toned highlights on redheads, and those with very fair skin can handle a warm-tinted shade. Other than that, stick to a middle ground.
Choose your highlighting technique carefully.
You’ve taken your time choosing a flattering highlight color. It may seem that your only task now is to sit back and let your colorist take the reins, but that’s not the case. Even the most precise shade doesn’t matter if it’s not applied with the proper technique.
Services like balayage (hand-painted color designed to make the transition between base and highlight shade look extra subtle) and ombre (another derivation of painted highlights) were developed to give customers a shot at natural-looking color with fewer touch-ups. You may have also heard of sombre hair color, which adds the slightest hint of brightness at the ends of hair, one to two shades lighter than the base.
According to Papanikolas, however, the key to beautiful hair isn’t just the method of application your colorist uses. It’s their dedication to keeping it subtle that matters.
“Foil, freehand balayage, and ombre techniques can all look natural if done properly,” he says.
No matter which technique you opt for, natural-looking highlights will usually keep your root color as untouched as possible to ensure a seamless, “born-this-way” grow-out.
Communication is everything.
The golden rule of hair color is ensuring your colorist understands exactly what you want before sitting in the chair. The consultation period most salons require isn’t just a formality. Your professional wants to know what kind of hair maintenance you’re willing to do, what shades you like, and what your favorite celebrity’s hair color is. (We’re mostly kidding on that last one.)
Do your research to find a stylist with experience applying the kind of highlights you’d like on clients with similar hair colors to yours. Check social media for photographic evidence of their previous work. Finally, download a few inspirational images to help your colorist understand what you want (more on that below!).
With a lot of skill, several of Papanikolas’ best tips, and a little luck, you’ll get your best highlights yet.
How to Care for Highlighted Hair
As much as we love low-maintenance, natural-looking highlights, a good at-home care routine is essential to keep them vibrant for as long as possible.
To create lighter, sun-kissed highlights, your stylist will likely use bleach to lift the natural pigment from your hair. While bleach will always damage the hair, a pro stylist will work to ensure you leave the salon with a mane that looks (and feels) beautiful.
At home, we recommend using a hair care system like Redken’s Acidic Bonding Concentrate to help repair and strengthen color-treated hair. This three-part system includes a shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner, and rinse-off treatment formulated with citric acid and a bonding care complex to repair and fortify weakened strands.
Brassiness is a common occurrence when taking hair from light to dark. When unwanted undertones creep in, you’ll need toning products to restore balance to your mane. To help identify what color will cancel out your brassiness, look to the color wheel method, which states that colors that lie opposite will cancel each other out.
For dark brown hair that’s been lightened, Papanikolas recommends a blue-pigmented shampoo, mask, or toning spray from Matrix’s Brass Off Collection. When it comes to brassy blonde hair, he says Matrix’s purple Total Results So Silver Set and Toning Spray will be your best bet.
You could also use an at-home toning gloss like Pureology’s Color Fanatic Top Coat + Tone Blue or Purple, which simultaneously adds mega shine to hair. Check out our full review here to discover how to use these products.
Looking for inspiration to bring to your stylist? Here are ten looks to get you started.
10 Natural-Looking Highlights to Try Now
Add a little extra sparkle to your brunette hue with lazylights. These soft, subtle streaks of color create depth and brightness throughout the tips of the hair to ensure a purposeful grow-out. Since your colorist will work off the root, you’ll have little to no maintenance unless you want to eventually bring the highlights up higher.
Like sipping on the frothy cocktail, espresso martini hair color is an easy way to bring hair back to life, especially if you’re working with an ultra-dark base. Don’t just take our word for it, though—watch the gorgeous ‘tini transformation in the video above.
Lighter brunette hair can also get in on the espresso martini trend by opting for a creamier melt of highlights from the mid-lengths to ends of hair.
Soft Blonde on Brown Hair
Ask for soft blonde highlights on brown hair, being sure to request a super subtle application technique like babylights.
Ash Gold Curls
You may think that natural-looking highlights are difficult to achieve on curly hair, but these velvety golden-beige ringlets beg to differ. Ask your stylist about clouding your hair color throughout the ends of the hair, which involves scrunching color into curls, so the roots remain untouched and fuss-free.
Sugar and Spice
Pale ginger is a flattering way to add dimension to red locks without pushing too far away from your existing color scheme.
Love this look? Consult your colorist to see whether Redken’s Shades EQ Hair Gloss 09AA Papaya, 08C Cayenne, and 07C Curry will work for you.
Lighter streaks with a warm honey-blonde tone peeking through create a gorgeous mix of blonde highlights that look effortlessly sun-kissed. Style your hair in beach waves to fool everyone into thinking you actually stepped off a tropical island.
Caramel Money Piece
Speaking of money pieces, this simple caramel ribbon creates a halo effect around the face, helping skin (and hair!) look instantly brighter. This is a great option for those who don’t want to mess with their base color.
Ready to try natural-looking highlights? Hair.com has all the salon-quality products you need to maintain your color-treated strands.