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Balayage vs. Foil: When Should Stylists Use Each Technique?

When it comes to coloring and highlighting, there are certain questions that we hear all the time from both stylists and clients. Some of the most common revolve around balayage and foiling. Specifically, people want to know:

When should I use foils instead of balayage, and vice versa? What’s the difference between balayage and foiling, anyway? Is either technique inherently better than the other?

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Because these questions are so common, we wanted to address them head-on in order to finally demystify the issue and facilitate happier, healthier, and more helpful conversations between stylists and their clients.

Balayage vs. Foils vs. Foilyage: What’s the Difference?

Before diving into when stylists should use each technique, we should first get the terminology straight.


Balayage is a hair lightening technique that’s specifically designed to impart a more natural, sun-kissed look to hair. The word itself comes from French and means “to sweep” or “to paint” which is why balayage is also known as hair painting. 

Product is applied to hair using a freehand technique, and is then allowed to process in the open air or while covered with a plastic film.


Foiling is similar to balayage in that it is a hair lightening technique, but it’s different in important ways. While balayage is typically applied in a freehand manner to achieve a more natural look, foiling typically involves sectioning the hair off before applying the product. (These sections can be thicker or thinner, depending on the exact look you’re trying to achieve.) After the product is applied, the hair is wrapped in foil for processing.

Why foil? It conducts heat better than open air or plastic film, allowing the product to infiltrate deeper into the hair, and helps keep the treated hair separate from untreated hair. All told, this leads to a more intense look.

Though foiling can sometimes result in harder lines of demarcation, there are ways around this. Using the correct color melt with your foils, for example, will eliminate foil lines but keep the effect of brightness near the root area. Similarly, by smudging the root it’s possible to soften the line of demarcation.

Bear in mind that foiling tends to use more product and takes a longer time to complete compared to balayage, which tends to raise the price of the service.


And then there’s foilyage, which is essentially a blend between the two techniques. During a foilyage treatment, product is painted onto hair as in balayage, and the treated sections are then covered with foil for processing. This can result in the more natural, painted look of balayage paired with the more intense coloring of foils.

When to Use Each Technique

Ultimately, whether you should use balayage, foiling, or foilyage for your client will depend on a number of factors. The most important of these factors are: What look is your client going for, and what is the canvas you’re working with?

When to Use Balayage

Generally speaking, balayage tends to be best for:

Clients requiring four levels of lift or less: Balayage can typically get you about 4 levels of lift in a single session, which means that it isn’t always the best route for those guests who need intense brightness or want a dramatic shift in their color.

Clients are new to highlighting and want to ease into the look: Balayage is so popular because of the natural look that it creates in hair, making it perfect for those who are newer to highlights and who are perhaps worried about a too-intense look.

Clients who don’t want a lot of upkeep: Again, because balayage results in a more subtle, natural effect, it’s easier for your clients to go longer between touch ups, making it a great technique for your clients who don’t like a lot of upkeep.

When to Use Foils

Foil highlights tend to be best for:

Clients who want more lift: If your client has darker hair and wants more than 4 levels of lift, or wants a more dramatic contrast between their highlights and lowlights, you’ll probably need to foil to get them that intense, bright color they’re looking for (while avoiding giving them blorange, brassy hair).

Clients who don’t mind more maintenance: Because foiling tends to result in a more dramatic color change and brightness, as the hair grows out it’s simply more noticeable. Clients with foiled hair will need to come in more frequently for touch ups to preserve their look.

When to Use Foilyage

If your client has darker hair and wants a more intense color change, but doesn’t want the harsh lines of demarcation that can sometimes result from foiling, foilyage is the way to go.

Tailoring Your Technique for Your Client’s Needs

As stylists, we should always tailor the technique that we use to achieve the effect that our clients are looking for. Whether that involves balayage, foiling, or foilyage will ultimately depend on the canvas that you’re working with and the effect being sought.

Just because you might perform balayage on one client doesn’t mean it makes sense for all of your clients; just because your guest might ask for balayage doesn’t mean that that is the technique that you should ultimately perform.

 Want more root smudging tips? Download our Root Smudging Formulas PDF!

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