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Balayage vs. Traditional Highlights: What's the Difference?

Humans have been using hair dye and coloring their hair for thousands of years. One of the first instances of people coloring their hair is seen in ancient Egypt. They used henna to cover up gray hair

Men and women in ancient Egypt used crushed leaves to achieve a variety of colors for henna dye. These days, hair color is more of a science, with limitless options for colors that can cover (or enhance) gray hair, add subtle dimension, or even just a fun pop of color.

Many different coloring techniques have popped up in the last few years that need a bit of digging to determine what they are and how they can shift the appearance of your hair. The term “highlights” may be familiar, but “balayage” is a newer hair color technique that some of us may be unfamiliar with. Depending on your hair goals, these methods of coloring hair can have their benefits.

Why Get Highlights?

Sure, you could go to the salon and have your hairstylist apply a single, all-over hair color, but where’s the fun in that? If you are one of the many people experiencing graying hair as you get older, your silver strands may feel like the perfect canvas to try something totally different at the salon.

If you’re considering changing up your look, you’ll first want to decide what method of adding hair color and dimension seems like it would provide you with what you’re looking for — and what you want to see in the mirror! Let’s look at the differences between traditional highlights and balayage, so asking for what you want at the salon is a cinch. 

We will even explore how to care for color-treated hair for color that lasts, so knowing what to look for in your hair care products will be effortless, too.

How Are Balayage and Traditional Highlights Different?

Hair highlights are a very common process of coloring hair that many recognize, even if they don’t know what it’s called. Highlights became popular in the 80s and have carried on, never really going out of style. 

Traditional highlights have evolved to fit the trends of any given year or decade. The late 90s saw thin, all-over highlights. In the mid-2000s, chunky block highlights became more popular.

Highlighting involves lightening sections of the hair to create a multi-tonal look against the natural, untouched hair. Done properly, highlights can be an easy way to add dimension to your hair.

Balayage is a type of highlighting technique that originated in France and means "to sweep." Balayage is a technique where color is “painted” onto the hair in a free-hand way. As a result, you get a more natural-looking hair color that appears to be kissed by the sun — think, subtle and effortless. 

The result of the balayage process should be a gradual gradient effect that doesn’t look like it was achieved in the salon. Balayage gained popularity with celebrities and models, which helped it break into the mainstream in the 90s. 

One of the biggest ways to tell balayage and highlights apart is the technique. Adding highlights to hair traditionally uses foils to keep the highlighted hair separate from the natural hair. Balayage, on the other hand, is achieved by hand-painting the hair. It is truly an art.

Should I Get Balayage or Highlights?

So you’re taking a trip to the salon soon and are considering going with either balayage or traditional highlights. How do you determine which will work best for you? 

The best place to start is with what you’re hoping to achieve. If you're overall happy with the tone of your hair now but want to add a little more dimension, balayage is likely your best option. If you feel your hair needs more of a noticeable lift in tone and you want something dramatic, getting all-over highlights may be what you’re looking for. 

Depending on your hair color, you may need to bleach your hair. Dark hair, especially thin or fine hair, will require more intensity than if the hair is naturally light. Repeated bleaching can cause thin or fine hair to become damaged and brittle

Aging hair is specifically more prone to this damaging effect because our hair is inherently drier when we get older. Whichever route you take, you will need to consider the maintenance for each. 

Highlights need upkeep about every four to six weeks to keep the look from growing out too far and looking unnatural. For balayage, you can get closer to the two-month mark before needing to schedule another appointment. 

With these maintenance schedules in mind for each, balayage may be a better option if you don’t want as much upkeep. Remember that balayage does require a decent amount of skill due to being hand-painted. For either color service, finding a stylist with a good track record for what you want to have done is best. 

What Is Ombre?

We’ve spoken about both balayage and traditional highlights. But some may think that balayage also goes hand in hand with what is known as “ombre.”

Balayage is the technique in which hair color is applied, yet ombre is a style of hair color. Ombre can be achieved by using the balayage method! Ombre is more of a dramatic look than what is usually given by balayage.

Ombre gained popularity in the early 2010s with, once again, celebrities getting eyes on the style. Where balayage is a gradual gradient from dark to light, ombre takes this a step further. 

Ombre goes from dark to much lighter dramatically, whereas balayage is known for looking au natural. This style could go from dark hair near the roots to light blonde at the ends. 

Beyond the natural colors, other colors have been incorporated as well. This could apply from dark gray to light gray or even pastel and neon colors. So if you’re looking for an even more dramatic look, maybe ombre is what you want.

How To Care for Color-Treated Hair

Hair that has been colored requires special treatment, just like your natural hair needs also require specific considerations. 

Finding products that are labeled as “color-safe” is always a safe bet. You don’t want a product that will strip the color from your brand-new style just days afterward. Protect the investment of your hair color with just a few easy steps. 

Washing your hair less frequently is a great way to keep the color longer. In general, you only need to wash your hair a few times a week. This method will help to protect your color. 

Every time colored hair is washed, you remove a bit of the color. This is because shampoo works by opening the cuticle of your hair to wash away dirt and oils. The problem is this could also potentially wash out color pigments. 

Hot tip: Wash and rinse your hair with cold water to protect the pigments even more. 

Pick the right shampoo and conditioner that is color safe. If you have aging hair, protecting the color that has been added is especially important. With aging hair also comes a loss in volume. These two challenges pose a tricky situation. 

That’s why we created our Wake Up Call Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner. The perfect way to protect your hair color while providing you with volume! If your concern isn’t about thin straight hair losing volume but thinning curly hair needing a boost, we have you covered there, too. 

Our Bounce Back Super Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner can help maintain the curls and add bounce that feels natural while maintaining the beautiful color your highlights provide. 

As a bonus, a masque is a great way to treat hair that is colored but also needs extra help from past damage. Our Hair Redemption Restorative Butter Masque is color safe and will help restore that damage back to a silky, shining state.

If you plan on using heat tools on your colored hair, treating it carefully is a must. Heat protectant is a valuable product when using heat tools on colored hair. Furthermore, anyone using heat tools should be using a heat protectant, especially those with aging and dry hair! 

Our heat protectant is able to withstand heat up to 450 degrees. Simultaneously, it protects your color and provides nourishment to aging dry hair, making it an easy step to include in your hair care routine post-salon.

Hopefully you’re feeling a bit more confident about the differences between traditional highlights and balayage — so confident that you’re ready to head to your hairstylist and let them know what hair color technique you are after! 

You can even do a bit of both: opting for face-framing highlights to bring attention to your eyes, with subtle balayage throughout the rest of your hair to add dimension and elevate your hair color.

Balayage, highlights, or another hair color method entirely, caring for hair that has been color-treated matters. Here at Better Not Younger, all our hair products are color safe, meaning the sky's the limit in terms of caring for your highlights or balayage. If you’re still unsure where to start, take our hair quiz today for personalized recommendations for feeling better, not younger. 

Sources:

Henna as a Hair Dye: A Current Fashion Trend with Ancient Roots | PMC

Balayage | Merriam-Webster

The Physical and Chemical Disruption of Human Hair After Bleaching | PMC

Hair Cosmetics: An Overview | PMC