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How to Balayage: 4 Steps for Stylists Learning the Art

How to apply balayage lightener
If you are new to balayage, learning the craft can sometimes feel overwhelming. The technique is so different from traditional foil highlights that it really requires a different frame of thinking, so it’s understandable that some stylists might not know where to start in developing their skills.

But the good news is that you don’t need to feel overwhelmed! In fact, you should be excited about adding this technique to your repertoire. Learning how to perform balayage will help you become better equipped at providing natural, sun-kissed, lived-in results for your clients, which can open many new doors for your career.

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Are you ready to learn how to balayage? Below, we offer a quick look at what balayage is and why it’s used and define the key steps in the balayage process. Though they are explored at a high level, understanding the basics behind these steps will better prepare you for learning how to balayage.

What is balayage?

Balayage is a hair lightening technique specifically designed to create highlights that are more natural looking than traditional foil highlights.

The technique works by painting the product onto hair in a free-hand manner and then leaving the product to process in the open air or while covered by a thin plastic film (as opposed to processing in foil under heat, as you would with foil highlights). Careful attention is dedicated to placement of product, again, with the end goal being to replicate natural highlights created by the sun.

Balayage tends to be a less dramatic lift than foil highlights. Product is carefully blurred along the shaft so that the highlighted portion transitions seamlessly into the natural pigment, resulting in a less harsh line of demarcation. The end result is a natural, lived-in, sun-kissed look that has come to represent “modern” highlights.

Balayage can range from high-impact to barely-there color, all depending on the application techniques and tools being used, as well as the client’s starting canvas and their end goals. Anyone can be a candidate for balayage, though it warrants being said that the technique lends itself to a neutral or warm finish because it's a very gentle lightening process.

4 Steps for a Perfect Balayage

1. Evaluate your client’s existing hair and set realistic expectations.

Before you ever pick up your balayage brush, it’s important to begin every appointment with a comprehensive hair consultation. During a hair consultation, you are doing a number of things that will impact the specific course of action you take to get your client where they want to be.

First and foremost, the consultation is your opportunity to evaluate the current condition of the client’s hair. This will help you understand how things like their hair’s texture, health, and treatment history might impact your proposed treatment.

Stylist evaluating client hair

The consultation also allows you to understand the client’s end goals for their hair. By understanding these goals, you can effectively communicate what will be needed to get there. For example, a simple highlight can be completed in one session. A more dramatic lift that takes them up a number of levels, on the other hand, will likely require multiple appointments and a significant investment of both time and money. Explaining this process will allow you to set realistic goals and give your client the opportunity to consider a different course of treatment if that is what they would prefer.

2. Crafting your plan of action.

Once you’ve had your consultation, you can begin to actually craft your plan of action. During this step, you need to make a number of decisions about the application pattern you will use, the type and consistency of the product you apply, the developer you’ll leverage, and whether you will process open air or with insulation.

balayaging nape of neck

Each of these factors should be influenced and informed by your client’s goals and the results of your consultation. Below are some examples of what you might decide:

  • Application pattern: How will your client wear her hair? Does she consistently part in one way, or does she regularly switch things up? Does she wear her hair up (for example in a ponytail)? Is she looking for face-framing? Also bear in mind that the length of your client’s hair might influence your application pattern, as will whether or not they are looking for gray coverage. All of these factors will influence the specific application patterns and techniques you use.
  • Type and consistency of product: Hair that is course might need thinner product, while hair that is thin might need thicker product. Hair that is unhealthy might need gentler processing. Hair that has been overprocessed or that has permanent dyes might need to be approached carefully. The list goes on.
  • Open air vs. insulation: If the client is looking for a more dramatic lift, then insulation can help you achieve this. Open-air processing, on the other hand, will provide the gentlest form of lightening.

3. The Application

Next comes the actual application process itself.

Usually, this will begin with sectioning the hair. This really just refers to the way that you part your client’s hair prior to application. There are a lot of different balayage sectioning patterns, sizes, and strategies that you can use depending on your desired results, so it’s a good idea to practice lots and figure out what works for you.

balayage product application

Once the hair is sectioned and your product is mixed, you can go about actually applying the product. Again, there are many different potential balayage application techniques that you can use, each with its own benefits and use cases. Bear in mind that the longer product sits on hair, the more it will lift. This will often help you determine where you should start and finish your application to create the right directions of brightness.

After the product has been applied, it will need to process. Again, this can be done in open air or insulated in plastic film, depending on how much lift you are looking for.

4. Finishing Services and Add-Ons

Once processing is complete, the final step is to rinse the product out of the hair.

finishing balayage with gloss and root smudge

This is also the perfect time to add in additional services that increase the value of the appointment and allow you to charge a bit more for your time. Glossing, toning, root smudging, proper styling, and other add-ons can all make a real difference in making your client feel beautiful and happy with the appointment. This will also increase the likelihood that you will be able to retain them and keep them coming back time and time again.

Learning to Balayage

If you would like to learn how to balayage, there are many different paths of getting you to your goal.

You might be surprised, for example, just how much you can learn on your own by reading content and advice designed to teach you the basics. Meanwhile, if you learn better when under the supervision of someone else, then an online class or in-person balayage workshop can be an excellent alternative to quickly learn the ropes.

In either case, it’s important to remember that really mastering the art will take practice and dedication. Every so often, you might experience a setback or hiccup, but by finding a tribe of supportive, like-minded stylists who you know have got your back, you can feel confident that you’ll get there!

Want more great balayage tips and advice? Download our Balayage Root Color Tips PDF, or consider signing up for one of our balayage classes or workshops!

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