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Partial Highlights Are the Super Subtle Change Your Hair Is Begging For

Partial highlights are a subtle way to inject dimension and shine into your hair color. Here’s what you need to know about the technique, plus easy care tips and photo inspo.

If the idea of getting highlights on your ash blonde or dark brown hair makes you anxious, partial highlights may be your mane’s knight in shining armor. The pressure to choose a secondary shade that blends perfectly into the color scheme you’ve already got going on, to make sure you’re choosing the right kind, and to maintain them—it’s a lot.

Highlights, whether they’re partial highlights or full, are universally flattering. Even after considering your colorists’ advice, deciding between partial vs. full highlights is a choice you’ll have to ultimately make on your own. We tapped Carthage, Illinois-based stylist Shannon VanFleet to help us dive into both techniques so you can make the most educated decision on the subject.

Why should anyone get highlights?

Highlights can be both a subtle or bold way to help give you the hair you desire. Whether you’re growing out a dramatic hair color or just pulling attention away from a haircut you don’t love; they’re an excellent investment for everyone of all ages and hair types.

Good hair day by @melaniedessauer_hairstylist

What are partial highlights?

Now that you know the hair-beautifying benefits of highlights let’s break down the techniques involved. As the name suggests, partial highlights only cover a section of your hair.

“The only difference in application between partial vs. full highlights is the area covered,” VanFleet says. “A partial is usually concentrated around the face and part line.”

Instead of bold, bright colors, you’ll see subtle and gradual light pieces. The service will most likely cost less than a full head of highlights and takes half the time to complete.

“The downside [of partial highlights] is that what you gain in time saved, you lose in impact,” the hair pro notes. “However, if you want to simply maintain your current color, focus the highlights in a specific area—like around your face—or are trying highlights for the first time, then a partial application may be the best choice.”

Another way to embrace partial highlights is to ask your stylist to paint a few pieces onto the undersides of hair for a pop of peekaboo color when you pull your strands up.

No matter which way you decide to test the waters with partial highlights, they are an excellent way to transition from virgin hair into the world of accent hair colors with less damage.

How many highlights are in a partial?

The exact amount of foils your stylist applies ultimately depends on your hair type and length, but you can expect the average partial highlight service to include around 20 foils.

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What are full highlights?

If partial highlights are the hair equivalent of a vintage photograph (some color, but not full vibrancy), then full highlights are a bright, bold professional shot—a whole rainbow of it. While the former may invite friends to ask if you’ve done something different with your look, the latter will be more noticeable and evident off the bat.

“A full highlight is just as it sounds—every area of the head is affected,” VanFleet says. “The main benefit of a full highlight is that there will be a greater impact since more of the hair is affected.”

If this all sounds too good to be true, there are some things to consider.

“The downside is that [full highlights] will take much longer to accomplish,” the artist continues. “You could very well be looking at one to three hours of just application time depending on the desired effect and amount of hair you have.”

Unlike partial highlights, full highlights will cost a bit more money. Still, VanFleet notes that there’s no need to touch up this technique constantly. Instead, you can opt for partial highlights to freshen up your color upon repeat visits to the salon.

Which technique is the most popular?

According to VanFleet’s professional experience, it’s a close race when weighing the popularity of partial highlights vs. full highlights. The colorist believes the full highlight technique has a slight lead on its less-shocking counterpart.

“From what I am seeing right now, I would say that the full highlight is taking precedence over the partial,” VanFleet says. “I think that is because people are looking for more drastic changes in their hair color. We love to see a change right away, and a full highlight can have a lot of impact.”

Another reason for the popularity of a full head of highlights? You can play it up as much as you want or ask your colorist to keep those streaks fine and subtle (an application technique known as babylights). There’s no one way to wear highlights, and having a full head gives you more opportunity to play around with them.

Is full or partial highlights better?

From an appearance standpoint, determining whether partial highlights vs. full highlights are better is entirely subjective. However, if you’re coming from a damage perspective, you can expect partial highlights to be the slightly less harmful option to strands.

Partial highlights require far less bleach than a full head, but your colorist may still need to use a bit of lightener to create your chosen look. Hair lightening will always cause some damage, but your colorist is skilled at minimizing the look and feel of damage before you leave the salon. When it comes to at-home care, you can use a weekly hair mask like Pureology Hydrate Superfood Treatment Mask to hydrate, soften, and protect the vibrancy of color-treated hair.

In addition, incorporate a bond-repairing mask like Redken’s Acidic Bonding Concentrate Intensive Treatment into your routine. Used as a pre-treatment before shampooing or as a pick-me-up mask when hair is in dire need, this highly reparative rinse-off formula works within your hair to strengthen hair bonds weakened by stressors like hair color, lightening, aggressive brushing, daily heat-styling, and more.

What’s the smartest way to keep highlights looking their best?

Like all hair colors, highlighted strands can become (in VanFleet’s words) “dull and dingy” within a few days—particularly if they’re blonde. VanFleet conjures up the image of a white linen shirt worn around a city as a metaphor. Pollution and grit will sit on the surface, making the fabric less white every day. You’ll definitely plan to add bleach before throwing it in the wash.

When it comes to blonde strands, a deep, cleansing wash is essential. VanFleet adores Redken’s Hair Cleansing Cream Clarifying Shampoo for the occasional deep clean.

We also recommend having a good toning system on hand as a fail-safe way to keep your blonde salon fresh. Redken’s Color Extend Blondage Shampoo + Conditioner Duo deposits purple pigments onto hair to help neutralize brassiness in blonde hair.

To tone partial highlights on brown hair, you can’t go wrong with Redken’s Color Extend Brownlights Shampoo + Conditioner Duo to progressively tone brown hair with highlights or balayage over multiple uses.

While washing hair is your first line of defense against color fading, take care not to overwash it, which can backfire by dulling your hue. Use dry shampoo between wash days to help prolong visits to the salon to touch up your color. Redken’s Deep Clean Dry Shampoo Jumbo is one of our favorites. This hard-working dry shampoo absorbs excess oil, dirt, and residue for up to four days, leaving hair feeling unbelievably clean and refreshed. Bonus: The new jumbo size is three times the size to last you even longer.

If shampoo and conditioner aren’t cutting it, VanFleet advises talking to your colorist about a new highlight color. Keeping the shade fresh will help you love your ‘do just a little more.

Need more inspiration about the latest trends in partial highlights? Keep scrolling!

The 17 Best Partial Highlights to Try Now

Good hair day by @beautybybrittanymcentire

Ginger Blonde

Super-fine, strategically-placed blonde streaks weaved throughout ginger hair spice up your red for a truly multidimensional shade that's as brilliant as it is beautiful.

Good hair day by @curlpop

Smoky Bronde

We love smoky bronde partial highlights on dark hair. The contrast of golden streaks on dark curly hair is guaranteed to make your ringlets stand out. Give curls a helping hand with L’Oréal Professionnel’s Serie Expert Curl Expression Definition Activator Gel. This smart cream-in-gel formula gives each twist and curve the perfect, frizz-free definition while infusing hair with the hydration and strength it craves.

Good hair day by

Pastel Blue and Purple

The color combination of purple and blue makes us nostalgic for childhood, but that doesn’t mean these shades look childish. This look is a total knockout when blended into ashy silver or gray hair.

Good hair day by @diego.fossa

Pale Blonde

As always, we’ve got a serious case of blonde on the brain. This pale version beautifully contours to create the illusion of added volume. Who doesn’t want bigger hair?

Good hair day by @kaytshaylehair

Honey Face-Framing

Like the sweet substance, honey highlights add a sugary touch to any base color. For summer or fall, brighten your color with this luxurious, flattering shade. Try it in a lob for an extra chic finishing touch.


Did you think we’d seen the last of holographic and metallic hair? Not quite yet. We’re enamored by opal—layers of blue, purple, pink, and silver highlights on bright blonde hair.

Good hair day by @theniksters


The most recent iteration of the pink trend is a very cool shade inspired by rose quartz gemstones. Try it over blonde or pastel hair for a punchy, on-trend look. If you’re feeling bold, talk to your stylist about a whole head of quartz hair color. Not so bold? Dip your toes into a temporary pink color-depositing mask, like Redken Color Extend Blondage Color Depositing Rose Blonde Mask.

Good hair day by @seangodard and @veronicavridge


Don’t make the mistake of thinking one shade of whimsical hair color is enough. If you already love pink, magenta, or lavender hair, add bright purple for added dimension. Prepare to make people smile at the very sight of your magical, technicolor hair.

Good hair day by @jeanpierresosa


Add nutty hints of color to your mane with hazel streaks. Placed around your face, these bright pieces will make your skin glow. Think of hazel highlights like the best of a vacation tan—without any of the sunburn or mosquito bites.

Good hair day by @connorjay.tone.mcr

Silver Blonde

This is not your grandma’s silver hair. Silver highlights are a superhero-inspired take on fantasy color when added to a light or dark base. On long hair, this look is particularly stunning.

Good hair day by @j.boothsalon

Pale Blue

Give the blue hair trend a try with pastel highlights. Mixed with a wintery blonde shade, they’re real showstoppers. Give blue hair a try, and you may want to think about committing to a whole head of the color!

Good hair day by @ommefammekwafuur


Is there a more delicious hair combination out there than caramel and honey? This blended look is ideal for every single skin tone.

Good hair day by @rebeccataylorhair


Fantasy hair color doesn’t always have to be outrageous. We’re big fans of watercolors blended into blonde bases precisely for their wearability.

Good hair day by @lakotaroomsalon


Auburn is the perfect combination of brown and red, which is why it’s so lovely and subtle on dark hair colors.

Good hair day by @martinaxhair

Light Copper

Brighten up rich red or brown base shades with a touch of light copper. Like a shiny penny, you’ll be surprised how reflective this color can be.

Good hair day by


Dress up a fantastical hair color with bright mint highlights. This unexpected color is less overexposed than a pink or blue might be.

Good hair day by @curlpop


If you love rocking your natural curls, ask your stylist to cloud your partial highlights. This method involves hand-scrunching dye onto curls so that the tips are subtly bright while the base remains dark.

Good hair day by @hairbymelissaslavick

Blush on Blonde

This soft blush shade acts like a pastel shadow and looks lovely on small sections of cool blonde hair.

Good hair day by @pati.rodrigz

Rainbow Peekaboo

One of the most exciting things about partial vs. full highlights is that you can try out a daring new color without having it infiltrate your entire head. Case in point: These rainbow chunks peeking through the top layer of hair add just enough whimsy to your look without going overboard.

Find more professional hair care products and the latest color trends at

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