Balayage vs. highlights vs. ombre

It’s a scenario that many hair stylists are familiar with. A client requests a certain color effect or technique, but it soon becomes clear that they aren’t 100% certain of the differences between balayage vs. highlights vs. ombre. Here you’ll find clear, concise answers that you can pass on to your clients, whether it’s balayage vs. ombré, ombré vs. highlights, or balayage vs. highlights!

This makes it easier to complement the client’s features, skin tone, haircut, and face shape.

In the 1980s came hair painting techniques, offering more blended results and mimicking the sunkissed effect. From here on, the sweeping motion really came into its own because, using only a balayage brush and the hands, with no other tools, the colorist becomes a real painter — expressing themselves on the hair, like a canvas, to create a unique result every time.

From this, L’Oréal Professionnel came up with the French balayage, a lightening and gloss service that leaves hair bright and shiny. This two-step service can be personalized both during step 1 (the lightening phase) and step 2 (the toning phase) for all types of women with all types of hair colors, showcasing their individual style and personality.

What is balayage vs. highlights?

When it comes to balayage vs. highlights, the two are commonly confused. Again, when talking about this to clients, the easiest way to differentiate between balayage vs. highlights is to explain that — history being the mother of all sciences — highlights existed first, were enclosed only, and offered a rather stark result due to every highlight being separated by aluminum foils.

Balayage, however, involves applying the same highlights but not with enclosed foils. They are originally an entirely open-air technique, providing a gentler contrast and a much more blended result.

Most of the time, balayage look is obtained with open-air techniques and/or bigger portions of hair that subtly blend with the immediate neighboring hair strands. More apparent highlights are achieved with more individual enclosed sections of hair that stand out significantly from the rest.

Ombre hair technique

Explaining the balayage technique for creating an ombre look may help to clarify the balayage vs. ombre difference. You can break the process down into four steps.

Using balayage to achieve an ombre

Step one: the hair is split into top and bottom sections, so that the final effect looks as if your hair has been naturally sunkissed.
Step two: the hair is teased at the point where the base color will fade into the lighter shade to prevent a visible line where the color changes.
Step three: using vertical downwards strokes, the lightener is applied from the ends upwards to the fade line, and left for the required time (variable depending on desired effect and base color.) This is the balayage technique, and requires expertise and experience to create a really natural finish. The ends can be left open air, or can be enclosed if technically necessary to be more visible.
Step four: hair is rinsed and towel-dried. Then, using the same balayage application technique, the toner/gloss is brushed slightly higher up the lengths, left to set for the required time, and rinsed.

Ombre vs. highlights

Which one to choose: ombre vs. highlights? The two are very different. Highlights start at or near the root and continue all the way to the ends, while an ombre starts mid-way down the lengths. Where an ombre shows a seamless transition from root to tip, highlights lift the entire color appearance of the hair.

The advantages of highlights is that they offer the client the ability to subtly go a level or two lighter, while with an ombre there is no root color regrowth: the ombre simply fades lower and lower down the hair as it grows out.

A shampoo and conditioner for color-treated hair are the basics, but to really get the best out of highlights or an ombre, a regular hair masque and the occasional visit to the salon for a toning service are recommended. Why a toner? Because, over time, hair that’s been lightened can start to turn an unwanted, brassy shade. A toner neutralizes these orange tones and keeps your color looking fresh and natural again.

Other hair color effects created using balayage

So balayage can be used to create beautiful highlights and ombre looks, but not only. With the right knowledge and skill, balayage can produce, for example: a reverse balayage (where the hair blends from light to dark), sombré (a super subtle ombre), lowlights (darker sections of hair color to reintroduce depth when blond is too flat/uniform) or even a color melt (where the two shades blend seamlessly into one another.)