Balayage vs. Ombré: What Exactly Is the Difference?

balayage vs. ombre hair

Balayage and ombré are two of the hottest hair trends to emerge in recent years. It isn’t uncommon for them to be mentioned in the same breath, as though they refer to the same thing—mostly from clients and guests who are new to the look, but also, occasionally, from stylists who assume they’re the same.

But the truth is, they’re not.

So what, exactly, is the difference between balayage and ombré? We explore the most important of these differences below, so that guests will be better able to ask for what they want, and stylists will be better able to deliver upon those expectations.

Balayage vs. ombré

In a nutshell, the difference between balayage and ombré can be summed up as: Balayage is a hair lightening/coloring technique, while ombré is a style of hair color. Sure, they might be similar in many ways, but they are fundamentally different.

Balayage

The word balayage comes from the French verb balayage, which means “sweeping.”

That name in and of itself does a pretty good job of explaining what balayage is: It’s a free-hand hair lightening technique that’s performed by painting, or sweeping, product onto the surface of the hair.

Exactly how the product is applied will vary by the stylist performing the service (there are a lot of different application techniques), but generally speaking, balayage placement tends to be vertical. This involves sweeping the product along the length of the hair, with careful attention paid to transition areas. The product is then allowed to process in the open air, or possibly while covered in a plastic film (but not foils).

Because balayage is not processed in foils, and because harsh lines of demarcation are avoided at all costs, the end result from a balayage treatment is hair that looks naturally sun-kissed and beautiful. It brings a body and depth that can’t be achieved with a flat coloring service or traditional foil highlights. And it’s also relatively easy to upkeep, making it a rather low-maintenance look.

Ombré

Just like balayage, ombré is also a word that comes to us from French. The word ombré means “shaded” in French, and it refers to the gradual blending from one color or hue into another. Typically this will mean transitioning between tints or shades within the same color (for example, from a dark blue to a light blue, or vice versa), but the term is also sometimes used to describe the gradual transitioning between two unrelated colors.

While the term balayage only refers to hair, ombré can actually refer to a lot of different things, from cupcakes to fabrics to nail polish, paint schemes, and everything in between.  

As it relates to hair, ombré is best characterized by gradual, but dramatic, shifts in hue from the hair’s tip through its body and to the root. Traditionally, the hair will remain darker along the root and transition into its lightest at the hairs tips, but the reverse look (lightest at the root, darkest at the tips) is also popular.

balayage vs. ombre hair

While balayage results in a subtle, natural look, ombré tends to result in a much more striking, showstopping finished look.

Ombré also has a sister: Sombré (or “soft ombré”) which involves a softer contrast and transition between the two hues.

Which is Right for Your Client or Guest?

Ultimately, the key factor in knowing whether balayage or ombré is right for your client is understanding exactly what kind of look they’re going for. That’s why it’s a good idea to have photo samples of both so that your clients can point to exactly what they want. It’s the simplest way of removing any potential miscommunication and ensuring that you’re able to deliver on your clients expectations.

That being said, balayage tends to be a better fit for anyone going for an understated, natural, subtle look, and for those who don’t necessarily want a lot of upkeep or maintenance. Ombré, being a bolder and more noticeable look, is probably a better fit for someone who wants a stronger effect, and who doesn’t necessarily mind the increased maintenance that it may take to keep the tone of the ombre fresh.

Want some more hot balayage tips, techniques, and advice? Check out our Advanced Balayage Placement tutorial!

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