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When it comes to hair color highlighting and balayage techniques and trends, sometimes the differences between them are so nuanced that it’s hard to keep them straight. Never fear. We’re here...with a primer that breaks down the hottest highlighting trends once and for all. Balayage, sombré, lowlights, and more...read on to learn what sets all these looks apart.

What is Balayage?

Pronounced BAH-LEE-AHGE, balayage is actually a French word meaning ‘sweeping,’ as in to sweep on a hair lightener to create highlights. Balayage is the technique of free-hand painting highlights onto the hair, creating a soft and natural gradation of lightness towards the ends. The result is the look of summers spent at the beach, or the fresh, unintentionally perfect highlights on a child. This natural-looking highlighting technique is not just for blondes, but is actually used on all shades of hair to add soft, sunkissed dimension.

Of course, there are variations in application preferences: some colorists don’t separate the hair, while others separate the hair with cotton pieces, and others prefer using foil as a divider. There are different application nuances that produce slightly varied results, but the main reason balayage has become so popular is that it allows colorists to hand select the pieces of hair they want to highlight. Due to the customized, natural-looking placement, balayage also allows for a softer grow out.

Make a balayage appointment at your nearest Madison Reed Hair Color Bar.

What is the difference between Highlights and Balayage?

Highlights is a general term that simply refers to hair that is lighter than the base color. Contrary to popular belief, highlights are not just for blondes, but can refer to lightening strands of any shade of hair. Highlights are traditionally applied using a method called “foiling,” in which sheets of foil are used to separate strands of hair that have been covered with a color or lightener before wrapping them in the foil to process. The foil keeps the lightener from getting on the surrounding hair, and also traps heat, allowing the lightener to lift more effectively. Foil highlights are generally placed close to the scalp, lightening the hair from the roots to the ends for an all-over highlighted look. See more on highlighting your hair at home.

Balayage is a free-hand technique of applying highlights, and does not usually use foil to separate the hair. Balayage creates soft and natural gradation of lightness along the hair strand—usually slightly deeper closer to the scalp and lighter towards the ends. Typically, balayage starts away from the roots and is focused towards the mid-shafts and ends of hair. Read more on balayage vs highlights.

Want Highlights? Schedule an appointment at your nearest Madison Reed Hair Color Bar.

Ombré, Sombré, Babylights and Balayage

Balayage often carries the brunt of being an umbrella term. While other forms of highlighting might be related to balayage, not all fit neatly in this category.

Ombré and Sombré speak more to the end result rather than the technique. Ombré is a more drastic, edgier version of balayage with a starker transition of dark to light, sometimes with a harder line where the transition starts. Sombré, on the other hand, is a soft, sunkissed transition of dark to light with the ends being only 1-2 levels lighter than the base color, and a seamless transition from roots to ends.

Babylights are also a type of highlight. The result is achieved by taking extremely small, thin sections of hair for subtle, sun-kissed highlights.

Light Works™ Balayage Highlighting Kit

With so many variations of highlighting looks and application techniques, it is no secret that highlights continue to gain popularity. Surprisingly, however, for women who color their hair at home, just 14% have highlights. Why this small number? Up until now, there were no salon-quality highlighting products for the at-home user, so women had to choose between expensive salon highlights and home highlighting kits that created unnatural results.

Get your at home balayage kit here.

In keeping with Madison Reed’s mission to empower women with a better way to color, Light Works™ Balayage Highlight Kit is the first of its kind at-home kit designed to mimic salon highlights with the same two-step process that you get in a salon, first lightening, then toning to refine the color for natural-looking, balayage highlights. The kit also includes:


  • An ammonia-free, clay-based Lightening Cream
  • Patent-pending Wishbone balayage applicator ensures fool-proof application
  • Bond Building Cleansing Treatment to strengthen highlighted hair and prevent future breakage

How to Care for Balayage Hair

If you’re wondering how to maintain that soft dimension, well, you came to the right place. Luckily, balayage is easier to maintain than it is to spell, and our VP of Technical Design & Education, David Stanko, created a video to teach you how to keep your balayage from going brassy, and how to touch up your roots without busting up your beautiful balayage.


Creating Different Tones within the Same Overall Color


You have: Red or brunette all-over color

You want: Different tones within that base of color

You need: Bowl and brush, two permanent colors


Brunette doesn’t have to be just brunette, and red simply red. Adding golden, copper, mahogany, and violet tones can create richer shades of hair color. For a multi-tonal palette, select one tone to be your base or root color, and an alternate tone to add variation. Here is an example of how this would work:


  • As a brunette, if your base color is a medium brown with hints of gold, you can add mahogany or auburn tones for variation.
  • Simply apply your base hair color and touch up roots as you normally would. Then, take small panels of hair and paint the variation of color onto those select small sections, painting right up to the area where the root color ends.
  • Use the color tint brush to alternate painting the two colors on various sections of hair.
  • Allow to process fully 35 minutes before shampooing out as normal.

Creating Lowlights (darker pieces) in Uniformly Color Treated Hair


You have: Dark blonde to medium brown color-treated hair

You want: To make pieces pop by adding slightly darker tones

You need: Your pre-selected darker shade, foil or plastic wrap, bowl and brush


Sure everyone knows about highlights, but what about lowlights? Lowlights can add gorgeous depth and dimension. To add complexity to your color, simply choose a lowlight color 1-2 levels darker and typically of a slightly different tone than your base color. Here is an example of how this would work:


  • If you have all-over red hair, you can make the red color pop by choosing another color one shade darker.
  • Choose small pieces of hair where you want to add dimension, and place foil or plastic wrap under these small sections of hair. This creates a canvas for you to apply color, using your gloved fingers, the applicator bottle, or a brush. Pro tip—when adding lowlights, start a couple of inches back from the face. This lets the lighter colors stay nearest to your skin for a more a natural-looking effect.
  • After you are done painting on the lowlights, close up your foils so the color doesn’t get on the rest of your hair.
  • Allow to process fully for 35 minutes before shampooing out as normal. Here’s another pro tip—only remove the foils when you’re ready to shampoo right away, as you don’t want to pull them out early and have the color laying against the non color treated hair too long.



When adding highlights, lowlights or adding a new tone, you can always start with 3-4 pieces until you feel more confident in your application, adding more as you fall in love with the look. If you’re feeling especially hesitant, you can also pin up the front crown portion of your hair and apply your balayage highlights underneath for a less noticeable look. From lowlights to highlights to all-over color, the thing to remember about hair color is that it should be fun. And don’t forget—we are here to help. Our Color Crew is made up of professional, licensed colorists here to talk you through finding your perfect shade, application, and how to care for your color. See our how to video for more tips!