What Is Balayage? Everything to Know About the Hair Highlighting Technique


Balayage has been ~A Thing~ for a while now, but if you still don’t know much about it or even how to pronounce it (is it bah-layage or bay-layage?), you’re not the only one. Often confused with other hair color trends, like ombré and traditional highlights, balayage is its own separate technique that deserves an entire guide devoted to explaining it, which is why we’re here, people.

So if you’re confused, don’t worry—this is a judgment-free zone where we (ok, mostly colorists Laura Gibson, Rusk artistic director, and Christin Brown, owner of Full Spiral Salon, who both specialize in balayage) answer all your questions about the hair-highlighting technique, even the most basic ones you might have—uh, what is balayage?—and much more. So let’s get to it.

Balayage is technically an application technique, not a finished result, but it’s not unusual these days to hear it used to describe both. “Balayage traditionally started as a French way of painting the hair,” Gibson says. “But as time has gone on and things have evolved, it’s more used as a description of hair color that’s beachy and sun-kissed.” As Brown explains it, the term “balayage” means “to sweep,” which is why the technique can be so soft and graceful.

Achieved through a freehand painting application technique (no foils), balayage gives the hair a natural, surface highlight on the top of the strands that cascades into full color. From blonde balayage to brown balayage, the customizable technique can be used to achieve a wide range of shade results. Curly hair, straight hair, super-long hair, short pixie cuts—Brown says the balayage technique can be used on all hair types to add brightness, dimension, and boldness.

Balayage is great, but it’s not necessarily better than other highlighting techniques, and Gibson notes the approach for achieving your desired outcome is best left up to the colorist doing your hair, who can determine the best fit for you. This low-maintenance hair color technique will always be a favorite for people who like their color but don’t want to live at the salon, which is why it’s still just as popular in 2021 as it was in 2014.

But if you’re someone who wants to have highlights come through every which way you part your hair, Gibson says balayage, which leaves a lot more of the depth of the natural hair, wouldn’t be the best service for you.

Part of what has made balayage so popular for so long is just how customizable it is, not to mention the many differences among artists with different techniques and applications. “Some people use lighteners and some use color,” Brown notes. “You can balayage to lighten a guest’s hair or to take them darker with more depth. Whether it’s reds, blondes, or vivid colors, the possibilities are truly endless.”

The cost of a balayage service really just depends. In general, Gibson says the price can start around $175 in suburban areas or $250 in cities, and go up from there (oh, and don’t forget you’ll need to tip your hairstylist too). I know what you’re thinking—why so expensive?! Balayage looks natural and easy, but it ain’t. Gibson explains that you’re paying more for placement and the fact that you’re getting a better grow-out. Not only that, but oftentimes clients want a root shadow with their balayage, which is an extra step to the process—and, of course, affects the cost.

On the plus side, the easy grow-out phase of a balayage means you don’t have to go as often to your stylist for touch-ups, so that should help to offset the cost a little bit.

It doesn’t always, but balayage can take longer than traditional highlights—just depends on how light you want to be. Gibson explains that because the hair isn’t in foil with the balayage technique, and it isn’t completely saturated in lightener, it takes longer to lighten the hair, and the processing time can be a little more time-intensive. Which, again, should maybe help explain the cost.

The process is pretty straightforward and similar to traditional highlights, but the application technique is slightly different. You’ll first consult with your stylist and figure out the right placement and amount of highlights, and one of the best parts about balayage is how easy it is to customize. For instance, you can get accent pieces to enhance your haircut or natural texture, or you can base it off your hair part or how your hair falls. Once you’ve got a plan, your colorist will start the process of painting the topside of your hair, and when finished, will cover it with plastic. Then, you’ll get a shampoo, gloss, and finishing service.

FYI, “low-maintenance” doesn’t mean “no-maintenance.” In between your appointments, in-salon treatments coupled with the right at-home haircare products will ensure the longevity of your color. Brown says color-safe shampoo and conditioner is a must and recommends Olaplex No.4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo and No.5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner, but sulfate-free cleansers also do an incredible job of preserving your color and not stripping the hair of toners, glosses, or natural moisture. Gibson also loves purple shampoos and color-depositing conditioners for keeping the tones the way you want them.

And for in-salon care, alternate between refreshing with a hair toner service to counter the brassiness and a bond-building service treatment to strengthen and restore your strands.

A professional. Seriously. If Gibson, a stylist with 15 years of experience, doesn’t try highlights at home, neither should you. “You’re a lot more likely to have spots when you do it yourself, or it will be a less even application,” Gibson explains. Both stylists say some of the biggest color corrections they’ve seen are from people attempting an at-home dye job. “I would advise that folks take that time and money and put it toward a session with a licensed salon professional,” Brown advises. “I know that it seems easy and quite tempting after a few YouTube videos, but just back away from the bleach and leave it to the pros. You’ll thank me later.”

Balayage is perfect for the low-maintenance person who doesn’t want the upkeep of highlights and instead wants something that grows out nicely. If you’re one of the lucky ones who live by the beach and have natural sun-kissed highlights, then paying for the same thing might not be worth it to you—but for the rest of us, better start saving up now.

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