Balayage and Highlights Look Similar, but They're Not the Same — Here's the Difference

Highlights, lowlights, ombré, balayage — there are tons of hair-coloring techniques out there that have dominated our Instagram feeds for years, yet even some of the most beauty-obsessed among us still have a hard time deciphering the differences between them all. Highlights and balayage in particular are two techniques that people seem to be confused about often, but the end results for both tend to look pretty different.

If you are considering coloring or switching up your hair soon but can't figure out which technique is best for you, we spoke to two professional hairstylists to get a little breakdown on the differences between foil highlights and balayage. Read ahead to see what we learned.

What Is Balayage?

The word "balayage" is actually French, and it translates to "paint" or "sweep" in English. Simply put, it's not really a hair color as much as it is an application technique that involves painting the strands of hair with a brush in a sweeping motion, gradually lightening the hair toward the ends.

"[Balayage] can be a bit more freehand than traditional highlights," celebrity hairstylist Clariss Rubenstein told POPSUGAR. "It's intended to give a natural sun-kissed look. If done well, it should look seamless and have very soft regrowth lines."

Unlike highlights, balayage typically doesn't require the hair to be painted with foil, and because the gradation is more natural, you can wait longer (up to eight weeks) in between touch-ups with balayage.

What Are Highlights?

Highlights tend to be done using a different, more targeted technique. "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," Rubenstein said. "Typically, there is a structured pattern the colorist follows when applying highlights."

Maria Elizabeth, hairstylist and owner of Salon deZEN, agreed: "Foil highlights start directly at the roots of the hair to create anywhere from lower contrasting highlights called babylights to highly dimensional hair color. The amount of the contrast is visually created by taking larger or smaller sections and not just by making the hair itself lighter."

Which Technique Is Best For Me?

The technique to ask your colorist for all depends on the final look you're after. Balayage tends to have a natural effect, with the hair gradually lightening down the strand. Highlights have a tendency to appear chunkier, or more strategically applied, and typically require more frequent touch-ups.

If you don't see your colorist often and want to lighten your hair but be able to grow it out without it being too noticeable, balayage is the technique for you. Alternatively, according to Elizabeth, if you want to color your hair several shades lighter than your natural color "and/or want a high-contrast hair color," foils will work best.

If you're still stuck, your best bet is to find a stylist you can trust and listen to their suggestions. "As someone who has done many color corrections, a good colorist is worth investing in," Rubenstein said. "I always listen closely to what the client wants, but to avoid getting anything lost in translation, you and your colorist should look at some photos together. Find photos of people who look like they have a similar base color and texture as you."

She continued, "The final step is to listen to the professional. They should guide you in the right direction based on what will look best while also keeping your hair in great condition."