Balayage vs Highlights: What Stylists Need to Know

Balayage vs highlights salt
When it comes to the hair industry, there are a lot of terms that mean similar things. Sometimes, the similarities are so strong that the words are used interchangeably; other times, there are important differences which need to be understood in order to prevent miscommunication.

Two such examples are: Balayage and highlights.

While balayage has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, there are still some clients and even some stylists who don’t really know the difference between the two terms. As a result, clients will sometimes come in asking for highlights when they really want balayage, or vice versa. When this happens, it’s possible that the client’s expectations won’t be met, which can lead to hard feelings and disappointment.

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Are you unsure about the difference between highlights and balayage? Below, we define both terms and offer some tips that you can use to better communicate with your clientele.

What are highlights?

The term highlight refers to what are also known as traditional highlights or foiling.

Traditional highlights involve applying lightening product to hair and then processing it in foil, which typically results in a more dramatic and noticeable lift compared to other techniques. Traditionally, this type of highlight has resulted in fairly noticeable lines of demarcation, as the highlights themselves are not usually well-blended with the surrounding hair.

traditional blonde highlights example

That being said, it is possible to achieve the lift associated with foil highlights and the well-blended look associated with balayage by using a technique called foilyage, which merges the best of both worlds in order to yield maximum lift and more natural placement.

Traditional foil highlights should be used when the client wants a clear and bright lift or for highly transformative color.

What is balayage?

Balayage is another hair lightening technique, which makes it similar in some regard to traditional highlights. After all, both techniques result in lighter hair. But there are important differences in how balayage is applied, as well as in what the final results will look like compared to traditional highlights.

Whereas traditional highlights are processed in foil for maximum lift, balayage is typically processed in the open air or while covered in a plastic film. The reason for this is that balayage is typically leveraged when a client wants a natural, sun-kissed look compared to the more dramatic lift that would result from traditional foil-based highlights.

Balayage highlights example

Another key difference is in the application of the product. Whereas traditional highlights often result in harsh lines of demarcation, balayage avoids this because it utilizes a free hand painting technique and is designed to give the most natural effect. Additionally, in balayage there is a gradual transition from the base hair to the highlight. This lends itself well to the sun-kissed look.

Balayage should be used when the client wants a gentle approach to color and lift. It can give 3-6 levels of left depending on the type of canvas, products used, and application.

All About Communication

As mentioned above, it isn’t uncommon for a client to sometimes use these terms interchangeably. And it’s understandable: The looks can sometimes mimic each other and, again, both techniques are used to lighten the hair.

That being said, as the stylist, it’s crucial that you understand what exactly the client is asking for before you get started. This is what makes thorough hair consultations such a critical piece of all appointments.

Some tips for communicating these differences with your clients include:

  • Understand their hair goals: Ask them to describe the final look that they want to walk away from the appointment with. This will inform the treatment you pursue.
  • Use pictures: Show the client pictures of what highlights would look like versus what balayage would look like, and ask them which look is the one that they’re after.
  • Educate them throughout the process: Explain the key steps involved in each of the techniques and why those steps lead to such different results. This can help the client truly understand the differences and may help them trust your recommendations.

While balayage and traditional foil highlights share certain similarities, the ability to communicate with your clientele and guide them to the right treatment for their goals is the mark of a truly skilled stylist.

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