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You've probably considered getting balayage at least once in your lifetime. The hair-color trend has dominated social media for years, but we're still loving it. The versatile hue works for all hair lengths (yes, even bobs) and colors. We've seen countless gorgeous midlength balayage styles, rainbow colorways, and multiple ways to wear balayage on dark brunette hair, too.
If you're considering trying out the hair-color technique at your next salon appointment, we're running through the basic need-to-knows about the coloring treatment ahead. Keep reading to learn exactly what balayage is, how it's done, what hair types it works for, and more.
— Additional reporting by Jessica Harrington
What Is Balayage?
"Balayage" is a French word meaning "to sweep or to paint," which is exactly how the hair dye is applied. The color is hand-painted by the colorist placing the dye exactly where the sun would hit the hair, allowing for a natural, sun-kissed finish. This natural-looking end result is very different from traditional foil highlights, which tend to be quite uniform. "Balayage gives softer, less noticeable regrowth lines with the principal idea being less is more," Jack Howard, a London-based celebrity colorist and L'Oréal Professionnel color spokesperson, tells POPSUGAR. He adds that balayage is often thought of as new, but it's something hairstylists have been long doing. "It's continually evolving and always bespoke."
How Is Balayage Done?
"Classic balayage pieces should be very close and soft at the root, leading to a thicker highlight at the ends of the hair," Howard says. "Balayage is applied on the surface of the section and not saturated through the section until the very tips." This is what creates a soft finish. Professional-grade plastic wrap is used to keep the colored pieces of hair separate, rather than using foils as you would for traditional highlights. "Because it's hand-painted, your colorist can choose the placements to best complement your cut, skin tone, and features, so it looks really natural rather than actually colored."
There are generally four different styles of balayage: creative, classic, micro, and Californian. "Classic balayage is saturated at the ends and product is loaded in the midlengths, feathered up to the root, and spread down over the surface of the section for a seamless finish," Howard said. Creative balayage is similar to classic but "the color is feathered only slightly toward the bottom of the hair." Micro balayage, on the other hand, is achieved by "saturating the ends, loading product just above this, and feathering up." And finally, Californian balayage is "a much heavier incarnation of this application," resulting in more coverage toward the end of the hair and a soft root, he says.
The Difference Between Balayage vs. Ombré vs. Highlights
Balayage, ombré, and highlights are often confused, but they're very different. As mentioned above, balayage is more freehand and involves painting the hair with color in a sweeping motion, resulting in a softer look. "Highlights is the act of lightening pieces of the hair with the use of color or bleach and folding them into a foil to let the color process," celebrity hairstylist Clariss Rubenstein previously told POPSUGAR. "Typically, there is a structured pattern the colorist follows when applying highlights."
Ombré, on the other hand, involves adding color in a gradient pattern to the mid to ends of the hair with the most saturated color at the very ends.
Balayage For Blond, Brunette, and Black Hair
The beauty of balayage is how customizable it is and, therefore, it works for all hair colors including blond, brunette, and black hair. "There has definitely been a preconception that balayage is just about adding blond pieces, but that's not the case at all," says Howard. "The first thing you should do is chat with your colorist about your options — they'll be able to tell you what will suit your skin tone. There are so many great shades out there — some warm, some cool — so always have a consultation first." You should also do your own research on Instagram and Pinterest ahead of your appointment, so you have reference photos to bring with you.
When performing balayage on dark hair colors, the application method is almost identical to blonds — it's the final result that's different. "The end result tends to be more caramel," George Papanikolas, celebrity hairstylist and Matrix brand ambassador, tells POPSUGAR. "Lighter highlights can be achieved on darker tones, but it may require more than one session to break through the darker pigment. It's recommended to do [it] in stages as not to overprocess the hair."
The Difference Between Full vs. Partial vs. Face-Framing Balayage
Just as you can customize the colors you get in your balayage, you can also tailor where the color goes. Three of the most common placements include full, partial, and face-framing. "Partial highlights usually only involve the crown starting at the temples [and around the face], while a full includes that plus the underneath layers," says Papanikolas. Face-framing balayage is exactly what it sounds like: only the sections of hair around the face by your ears.
Balayage on Natural, Textured Hair
Balayage works well on natural hair, too, but the application method will be slightly different. "If the hair is very curly/afro and has lots of layering, you will need to do a heavier application since the hair is more three-dimensional and can look like a cheetah if you don't hit all the ends," says Papanikolas. "Ideally, it's best to carefully and strategically target curls that frame the face and space them throughout the hair."
In general, those with natural hair should be careful when bleaching it because "curly hair is more fragile and prone to not only damage but losing its curl pattern." To avoid this, consider using an ammonia-free lightener, like the Matrix Curl Lights, which is gentler for the hair.
What's the Maintenance Like For Balayage?
Possibly the best part about a balayage hairstyle is that it requires little upkeep. "For many women, highlights are too time-consuming, and I personally feel colorists who spend 90 minutes doing a full head of foils are making color a chore unless that's the look you really want," Howard says. "Balayage is great because not only is it speedy, meaning you don't have to sit so long in the chair, but it grows out beautifully, meaning less maintenance and fewer frequent appointments." He adds that most balayage can last 12 to 14 weeks (with some of his clients doing touch-ups only twice a year).
The price of balayage ranges in price from hair length to salon. "Balayage with me starts around $178 for that six-piece look, but all salons are different," Howard says. "I've trained thousands of colorists all around the UK and worldwide, and it's become a staple on the salon menu, so you should be able to find someone nearby — I recommend having a look on Instagram to see their work." And remember, with all hair color, sometimes it's worth spending more for a better colorist. A bad dye job is hard to fix once the damage has been done.
How to DIY Balayage at Home
Attempting to DIY balayage isn't recommended. "As easy as your colorist makes applying balayage highlights, there is a reason you pay a premium in the salon for the service," says Papanikolas. "The technique requires strategic placement, usually starting more delicate at the roots, gradually getting thicker and heavier as you move down the hair shaft." But it's not just the placement of the hair dye that makes this coloring treatment tricky. "The timing varies for each person and takes an expert eye to know when it's ready," he says. "Take it off too soon and it will be brassy. Leave it on too long and it can become overly bleached and damaged."
You could try to look up an at-home tutorial, but Papanikolas says, "The chance you will require an expensive correction is high." It's best to just do it right the first time.