Without a doubt, highlights are one of the most effective ways to enhance your natural hair color. They’re achieved by adding color, or lightening sections of your hair, creating incredible depth and richness to your crowning glory. The idea of changing one’s hair color has been around for thousands of years.
Ancient Egyptians used henna to cover grey hair. The people of Ancient Greece and Rome also used different plant extracts to change their hair color. In the Roman Empire, prostitutes needed to have blonde hair, and some used a plant-based mixture to lighten their natural hair color.
Some civilizations even used hair color on the battlefield to show their rank and frighten the enemy.
Highlights have only grown in popularity in the last few decades. We might automatically think that highlights mean blonde strands in light brown hair, but these days, highlights are so much more, and the options appear to be endless. Let’s dive in and take a look at all the types of highlights for hair.
As you go through the list below, you will note that there are loads of overlaps and similarities in most of these techniques.
Traditional highlights involve using foil to section out strands of hair, which are then lightened from roots to ends, leaving some natural hair between each foiled section.
How to Achieve Highlights
The lightener, usually hydrogen peroxide, is applied to the sectioned hair using an applicator brush. Your stylist will fold the foil around the hair that is being lightened to protect the hair and stop the hair in the surrounding area from being lightened during the processing time.
Either the hydrogen peroxide is mixed with pigment to change the color of the strand, or the hydrogen peroxide is applied first, and the pigment applied later to tone the hair color, if necessary.
History of Highlights
In the sixties, innovative hairdressers of the time created the highlighting process. They used a tight plastic skull cap with tiny holes and small hooks to pull out hundreds of hair strands. While it became all the rage, it was a very painful technique and thankfully was replaced by easier methods in the years that followed.
In the next decade, hairstylists began to experiment with freehand techniques, where bleach is painted onto the hair by hand, without the use of caps.
In the eighties, the foiling method was developed – where slices of hair are treated with bleach and kept separate from the rest of the hair by using squares of aluminum foil. This technique remains the most common method used today.
Full Highlights vs. Partial Highlights
As the terms indicate, with full highlights, the technique is applied to the entire head of hair. With partial highlights, foils and lightener are used on half the head of hair, usually in the area around the face.
The Pros of Highlighting Your Hair
- Highlights add a subtle change to your look. Instead of changing your entire hair color, the highlights will lighten up your look, which is excellent for the summer months.
- Highlights are incredibly versatile. Instead of only dying your hair one particular shade, you can add multiple colors using foils and different hair color pigments.
- Highlights also add texture and depth to your hair and can enhance your natural color.
The Cons of Highlighting Your Hair
- Highlights can dry out the processed sections of hair.
- Darker roots always re-appear, so you will definitely be needing regular touchups at the salon.
- Highlights fade naturally over time and even more so if you are spending any length of time in the sun.
- If you spend lots of time at the pool, be aware that highlights are prone to discoloration when exposed to pool chemicals.
Highlights vs. Lowlights
In a similar technique to traditional highlights, stylists can apply lowlights to the hair. This is where, instead of using a lightening agent, hair dyes are applied, creating sections of hair darker than your natural color.
Essentially, babylights are the most delicate of traditional highlights, giving hair a very subtle, sunkissed look and adding a glow to your locks.
They make your hair look like it is sunkissed. Because they are so petite, babylights look incredibly natural, and you will not look like you have just come from the salon. If you can imagine the natural highlights of a blonde child who has spent time in the sun – that is what babylights look like.
How to Achieve Babylights
Your hairstylist will apply a lightener to very fine sections of hair throughout the head.
As for the application process, the method for babylights is almost the same as traditional highlights. The main difference between babylights and highlights is the amount of hair in each foil and the separation between each of the foils.
Tiny sections of hair are lightened, and there is a very slight separation between foils. This allows the highlights to blend smoothly with the base color.
Babylights are sometimes combined with other coloring techniques, such as balayage, to add subtle dimension to the parting and the hairline.
The Pros of Babylights
- Babylights can be applied to any hair color, type, and length, making them a fantastic option for almost anyone. As long as your stylist helps you choose the right shade for your skin tone, then you’re destined for a fabulous result.
- The delicate babylights are an excellent option for fine hair as they will add depth and dimension without overpowering your hair with strong or chunky highlights.
- Babylights are perfect for accentuating your natural hair color without making a drastic change. This means that they are a great option for you if you’re nervous about big changes and are just starting to consider the idea of coloring your hair.
- Another benefit is that because babylights are so super fine, the regrowth is subtle, and the style tends to become softer as it grows out. This fact also makes babylights very low-maintenance.
- Suppose you’re transitioning from a more dramatic hair color look. In that case, babylights can create an easier transition from the base color at the root to the existing color by softening the harsh lines and blending the colors for a more natural effect. Great for moving from an ombré into an all-over color.
The Con of Babylights
- The babylight technique takes time to complete. Sectioning the hair into extremely fine pieces is very time-consuming, and because hairstylists charge for their product, expertise, and time, you must be aware that you’ll be in the chair for a long time, and it may cost you a bit.
Balayage is a French term that means ‘to sweep’ or ‘to paint’. Balayage is a technique for highlighting hair where the product is applied in a sweeping freehand method and is allowed to process in the open air, as opposed to in foils. Some stylists might still cover the hair with a plastic film.
The Balayage Technique
Your hairstylist will section your hair according to your desired level of depth and dimension.
Your stylist will then mix the lightening product and apply it to sections of your hair with a freehanded motion. Stylists have their preferred method for balayage application, so don’t be surprised if you notice different techniques at different salons.
Your hair will be left to process, either in the open air or under a plastic film. The plastic film allows increased lift in color. Your hair will then be rinsed, and any additional work will be done – toning, glossing, and so on.
Further development on this technique is known as ‘foilyage’. This is a hybrid technique that uses traditional foils together with a freehanded painting technique.
The product is painted onto the hair as with a balayage, but the treated sections are covered with foil, resulting in a natural balayage look with more intense coloring.
Is Balayage for You?
If you are looking for sunkissed and natural results, then balayage is probably a good technique for you. It is usually considered a gentle approach to lightening the hair, so if you are looking for a radically lighter color, perhaps you need to consider other options.
The soft, blended look provided by this technique makes for low-maintenance color. You will not need to go to the salon for touchups as frequently as you would for traditional foil highlights.
Balayage and foilyage are often used to blend grey hair. If you are less than 50% grey and want a low-maintenance root touchup schedule, then this might be the option for you. This look doesn’t cover the greys – it is more about blending them away.
Flamboyage kicks up the balayage technique by adding some flamboyance to your hair. These trendy hair highlights are also known as peek-a-boo highlights – they peep through the hair.
Your hairstylist will use an adhesive strip of transparent paper called Flamboyage Meche, allowing for a very fine and spontaneous hair selection. This adhesive strip also provides a surface for the color to be applied.
Ombré and Sombré Highlights
Ombré is a French word for ‘shade’ or ‘shadow’, and ombré hair highlights are when the roots are darker and the ends are lighter. Ombré hair highlights are achieved when a shade of color is blended from root to tip in a gradient. Generally, the product used to achieve this look is applied with a balayage technique.
The ombré hair color style started to trend in the early naughties, when the singer Aaliyah’s hair was colored black at the roots and gradually faded to blonde at the tips. These stunning hair highlights have only increased in popularity since then. It works well on various hair types, lengths, and colors and the effect is quite striking.
The ombré trend has since become a trend in nail art, clothing, makeup application, baking, and even home décor.
The color combinations for ombré are endless, and the result can be a natural look, or an in-your-face look, with on-trend unconventional hair colors.
Ombré vs. Sombré Highlights
Sombré highlights are a softer version of ombré, with the ends and roots looking almost the same. The end result is more delicate and less dramatic, but no less gorgeous! Because sombré is essentially a softer variation of the ombré effect, we assume that the term ‘sombré’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘subtle’ and ‘ombré’.
These highlights are purposefully done to maintain a more natural look – perfect for when you want some change, but you’re not up for anything drastic.
If you’re looking for something which adds a hint of color to your hair but doesn’t stray too far from your natural hair color, then you should chat to your hairstylist about a sombré look. This look adds incredible depth and movement and can make fine hair look thicker. What a win!
Because it is slightly more conservative than the ombré look, sombré has become increasingly popular.
The Pros of Sombré and Ombré Highlights
- The joy of the ombré and sombré highlights is that they are relatively easy and cost-effective to maintain. While the initial application process is time-consuming and can be pricy, your maintenance visits to the salon will generally be quicker, cheaper, and less frequent. This is because most of the maintenance will be recoloring the roots to avoid the dreaded regrowth look.
- The sombré look works very well on almost all hair colors. If you are a brunette, you can have your ends brightened with caramel, blonde, or golden honey tones. Redheads look amazing with a strawberry sombré – a combination of rich copper roots with paler peachy-colored highlights.
The Cons of Ombré and Sombré Looks
- With both ombré and sombré styles, you might experience dry tips and split ends due to the lightening process.
- As with any color lightening treatment, brassy tones can also sometimes become an issue.
Ribbon highlights are similar to the balayage method, giving a dazzling look to your hair.
The stylist will use the following method to create ribbon highlights: they will begin with a solid color base and then weave a lighter hue throughout the whole head of hair in ribbon-like sections.
The ombré look is all about having darker roots that fade into lighter ends, but the ribbon technique results in a gorgeous contrast between light and dark pieces. When styled with a curling iron, the light pieces will resemble ribbons! Instead of the highlight being heavy on the ends of the hair, the ribbons are twisted throughout the entire length of the hair, no matter whether you have shorter or long hair.
This highlighting technique adds depth together with bringing out the natural elements of your hair. This look is absolutely ideal for you if you have natural waves or curls.
How Your Hair Stylist Will Achieve Ribbon Highlights
As with most highlighting techniques, you should not attempt this technique at home. The method requires coloring full strips of hair, from virgin hair roots through to possibly precolored ends. Achieving a ribbon-like look could require highlights or lowlights.
For lighter brunettes or blondes, you might need to add darker hues to achieve the desired contrast.
Chunky highlights are another flashback to the early nineties. Most fashion trends come around again, and it seems that chunky highlights are making a bit of a comeback at the moment.
Chunky highlights can be done in bold primary colors or more natural shades. They are usually 1 to 2 inches wide and create a stark contrast against your natural hair color.
The current trend is more in-your-face than a delicate balayage highlight, but it is a vast improvement on the bright orange stripes of the nineties.
Frosted Hair vs. Frosted Tips
Frosted hair is different from frosted tips. Frosted tips mean that the very ends of short hair are lightened as if the tips have been dipped into a hair lightener to give a multidimensional look to the hair. Think nineties boyband vibes.
Frosted hair, however, is a scattering of contrasting highlights on longer hair. Usually, this is done in cool sparkling tones, like ash, platinum, or beige.
Is Frosted Hair Different from Traditional Highlights?
Hair frosting is just a variation of the traditional highlighting technique. Where stylists usually try to create a soft natural finish with conventional highlights, hair frosting creates stronger contrasts. The stylist might use foils or go freehand, but they will increase the lift of the lights and use a cool toner to make that super cool, icy look.
Last on our list of types of highlights are multidimensional highlights. This simply refers to the concept of adding dimension throughout the hair by using a combination of darker shades and lighter shades. Dimension is essentially a contrast of light and dark tones.
Multidimensional color can be done via several techniques – highlights, balayage, ombré, color melting, and other processes. The method largely depends on your current hair color, length, and texture.
As a variant and an update on the balayage technique, you may be asking what the difference is between multidimensional highlights and all the other techniques we have mentioned already. And why are they so popular right now?
- Multidimensional highlights offer a more natural finish.
- Stylists can combine a few tones from the same chromatic range as your hair’s natural base color with amazing results.
- Multidimentional highlights add depth, movement, and volume to your hair.
- There is no change to the hair’s natural root color. Your stylist will create a gradual fade from root to ends to simulate the hair’s natural color fade and is almost imperceptible.
- Your stylist can also create contouring that highlights certain features by using lighter and darker tones on specific areas.
What is the Multidimentional Highlighting Technique?
Your stylist will use some imagination when applying this technique. Highlights are created freehand with a comb, hands, a sponge, or another tool. The idea is to create highlights of varying thicknesses without making them too visible, allowing all the colors to blend harmoniously.
Hair Maintenance Tips for All Types of Highlights
No matter what technique your stylist employs to create your gorgeous look, maintaining your hair post-treatment is essential to keep you looking fabulous in between hair appointments.
Here are a few tips to help you maintain your gorgeous highlighted look:
- Your hair cuticle layer is opened when you color your hair, which makes it easy for color to penetrate the hair shaft. Try not to wash your hair too soon after your appointment, as the cuticle layer could still be open, your color could literally start washing away. It takes up to three days for the cuticle layer to fully close, so the longer you wait to shampoo your hair, the better your color will last between salon visits.
- Using cool or at most room temperature water is best when you wash your hair to prevent your color from fading. Not only does hot water washing result in color fading, but it could also contribute to hair loss. Cool water, however, seals the cuticle and brings back the shine.
- Shampoos that create a lot of lather tend to contain detergents that can damage your hair and alter your fresh new hair color. Always opt for color-safe, sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners
- You should aim to use a hair mask two to three times per week, but as far as protective hair treatments go, you should opt for a deep conditioner with a moisture concentrate rather than a protein-rich mask.
- If possible, limit the use of heat and hot tools on your hair to prevent the color from being stripped. Allowing your hair to dry naturally whenever possible helps you maintain your highlights and avoid damage to your locks.
- Regardless of your color technique, hiding those grey hair is always a challenge. Look out for some of the excellent root touchup products available at your local drug store for the period in-between salon appointments.
- Check with your stylist about how you should adjust your hair care routine to best suit your new look.