What is Balayage Hair? The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need
Balayage hair seemed to blow up seemingly overnight. Out of nowhere, our Instagram feeds were suddenly flooded with images of dimensional blonde locks with ultra-bright, face-framing pieces, tagged with #balayage. The trend took off for good reason—balayage is a fairly low-maintenance way to go lighter, as it preserves your base color and often blends your natural roots for softer grow out.
But what exactly is balayage, and how do you correctly ask your colorist for this look? For starters, balayage is technically a technique used by your colorist, rather than a specific color itself. Confused? No worries: We break down everything you need to know, below, with the help of pro colorists Lisa Satorn, Olivia Casanova, and Jordan Heidenwith.
Ahead, everything you need to know about balayage, what to expect from the process, how it differs from other highlighting techniques, how much you can expect to pay, and more.
- How to Pronounce Balayage: bah-lee-ahj
- Choosing a Shade: The options are seemingly endless when it comes to picking a shade. “Balayage can be very versatile, making it a good option for most people,” Cassanova says. Still, for less upkeep, keep your base shade as close to your natural color as possible. If you’re okay with more maintenance, you can go lighter.
- Maintenance Level: Low to medium. If you’re turning to balayage just to add a touch of extra warmth and dimension, going in twice a year should be more than enough. However, if you’re relying on balayage to break up your natural base color or significantly lighten your hair, you should expect to go into the salon a few times a year, Heidenwith notes. “My average balayage client comes about every three to four months,” Satorn adds. “But that can easily go up to six months since there is a seamless grow-out.”
- Goes Great With: All skin tones; it’s highly customizable.
- Similar Techniques: Ombré, Sombré, Foil-ayage
- Price: In NYC, a full service with tip can cost upwards of $400, and a partial between $200-$300. In other parts of the country, full service appointments can be as low as $150 and partial appointments as low as $75-$100. In short, it’s difficult to give an exact figure because the needs of everyone’s hair, where they’re having it done, and the credentials and rates of the colorist differ.
What Is Balayage?
Contrary to popular belief, balayage is a color application technique, rather than a specific color itself. The word translates to “sweep” or “paint” in French. Bright around the face, blended at the roots, lighter ends, and effortlessly natural are all descriptors of balayage hair. “Think undone, cool surfer girl hair,” Cassanova explains, “Almost like you spent a summer at the beach.” The balayage technique is used to achieve a very naturally blended, lightened look, and while we typically associate balayage with becoming blonde, the same technique can be used to create caramel, espresso, or even pastel strands.
Unlike traditional highlights, which use foils, balayage involves painting onto the hair with a brush dipped in lightener. “It’s a freehand highlighting technique,” Satorn says. “By using a sweeping motion, it creates a soft, multidimensional and natural looking highlight.” Colorists use their brushes to paint sweeps of vertical highlights onto the hair with strips of cotton or saran wrap layered between each section, which protects the application by avoiding any color bleeding or spotting.
Balayage vs. Ombré vs. Foil Highlights
Despite balayage coming on the scene in the ’70s, it didn’t surge in popularity in the US until somewhere around 2010. “Before [balayage], I was still doing a traditional, classic foil look (think circa 2000s; very blonde highlights to the root),” Cassanova tells us. And while both balayage and traditional foil highlights are application techniques that target lighter hair, they have varied results.
“Balayage gives a multidimensional highlight, which can appear more natural because it creates different levels of lightness,” Satorn explains. “Traditional foils give a more uniform and even finish, creating a single-dimensional highlight.” Heidenwith adds, “I think when choosing a technique, it all depends on the client’s hair and what their desired look is. For most ‘high contrast’ looks, I usually use a foil in some sort of way to lock in heat and ensure lightness.”
But the highlighting options don’t stop there. Like balayage and traditional highlights, ombré, a French term meaning “shaded” or “graduated in tone,” is a common request for lightened hair. However, whereas balayage is used to achieve more of an all-over color from roots to ends, ombré appears to be perfectly grown-out hair color. Its color gradient typically goes from darker roots to lightened ends with little to no color applied near the roots.
The Benefits of Balayage
- Looks more natural than traditional highlights: The nature of balayage is to paint specifically selected strands and blend them with your natural base. As such, balayage looks much softer than traditional foil highlights, which tend to have more obvious lines of demarcation.
- Low-maintenance: Because the lightened strokes are painted on so softly to achieve that natural look, they leave no trace of harsh, blunt lines or obvious regrowth, allowing for more time between your appointments.
- Color is less likely to “bleed”: With balayage, colorists use a barrier between their sections to prevent the layers of bleach from touching. “The benefit of using cotton or saran wrap in between sections is to prevent the lightener from bleeding, which could create a blotchy dye job,” Cassanova says. If foils are placed too close, it could leave what’s called a “bleed,” or a spot of bleach that’s leaked onto the hair beneath the foil, and that can be difficult to fix.
- Less damage: Because balayage doesn’t involve saturating your entire head of hair in bleach (as is the case with double-process), you use less bleach and thus get a lightened look with significantly less damage to your hair.
The Drawbacks of Balayage
According to our experts, your natural hair color and its tones (e.g. warm, neutral, or cool) will influence the results of your balayage. “Sometimes people with very dark hair can pull very red/orange warm tones when getting balayage done,” Cassanova says. “If you’re someone who doesn’t like warm tones, then balayage is probably not for you. The hair can turn brassy more quickly than with traditional highlights (depending on your natural hair color).” Satorn agrees, telling us that with even the slightest drop of warmth in your color, it could be very difficult to achieve your desired tone with balayage. “I love offering balayage to clients that love a hint of warmth to reflect against their highlight (and do not mind more than one appointment to get to their desired lightness).”
While a toner can quickly fix unwanted warmth, it is prone to fading out and leaving you with that undesirable brassiness. You may decide that keeping up with more frequent toners between balayage appointments is worth it, but remember that will require more upkeep, as well.
Is Balayage Safe For Natural Hair?
Compared to other, more traditional approaches to lightening the hair, Cassanova tells us that balayage is a little easier on all hair types, especially curly haired girls who put their curl patterns at risk when choosing to go lighter. “There is no heat being retained inside of any foils forcing your hair to lift quicker, which can sometimes cause damage if over-processed,” she explains.
“I take extra care to follow the curl pattern of the hair and will leave more negative space between each balayage highlight, making sure to keep dimension,” Satorn says. With the proper application and formula, she assures us that the hair won’t get damaged, no matter what type of texture you have. “Naturally coily hair is a perfect candidate for balayage because it won’t make your highlights look stripy,” Cassanova says. “As long as it’s done slow and steady with a bond builder such as Olaplex or Uberliss,” she adds.
How to Prepare for Balayage
- Always bring multiple photos that represent your goal: There are so many techniques and names for things that all have different meanings to stylists. Photos make it easier to get everyone on the same page to agree on things by visually pointing out certain details.
- Come with clean hair: “I love to balayage on clean hair so I know there isn’t a buildup of product, dirt, or oil that may hinder the lifting process,” Satorn says.
- Try a conditioning treatment a few days beforehand: “You can prep your hair by using either Olaplex No. 3 ($28) or Uberbliss Bond Sustainer ($15) at home a few weeks leading up to your appointment,” Cassanova advises. “This way you can help strengthen your hair to ensure minimal damage when lightening.”
- Wear your go-to hairstyle: When it comes to balayage, your colorist will paint differently depending on whether you wear your hair curly or straight. So arriving with your hair styled how you would normally wear it helps colorists to better place highlights.
What to Expect During the Process
With balayage, your colorist hand-selects which sections or strands of hair will have lightener applied to them. Typically, lightener is more highly concentrated on the face-framing pieces of the hair, the ends, and the top layer of hair for a more dimensional look. Depending on your base color and your desired end result, your stylist will typically leave out a few sections of the hair and not dye or lighten them. This helps create that soft, dimensional, blended look that balayage is so famous for.
Balayage is usually executed with bleach, and will typically involve a round of toner or gloss as well. It’s recommended to see your colorist for a consultation first before booking your balayage appointment so that you both have plenty of time to discuss the best fit for you before the bleaching day.
Every appointment is a little different based on the current state of your hair and what you’d like your end result to look like, but here’s a general framework for what you can expect at your balayage appointment, which can take anywhere from three to five hours.
- Your colorist will evaluate your hair: Even if you’ve already come in for a consultation, your colorist will begin by evaluating your hair and inspiration photos. They’ll likely ask you questions about how often you heat style, which way you part your hair, how you usually style it, how often you’re committed to returning for touch-ups, and if you’re open to having a trim before deciding on the final color plan for the day.
- Sectioning and hand-painting your hair: Once you and your colorist have decided on a final color plan together based on your goals and lifestyle, they’ll mix up some lightener and bring it over to the station where you’re seated. This is your chance to go to the bathroom, make sure you have a beverage, and that your phone/book/magazine is out in your lap because once the painting process begins, you’ll be seated in your chair for one to two hours, depending on how much hair you have and how much lighter you’re going. Your colorist will work section by section, painting specifically selected strands from a section of hair and then covering that section with cotton or saran wrap so the lightener doesn’t bleed into unwanted hair sections. The lighter you’re going, the smaller the sections will be and the more strands from each section they will choose to paint.
- Sitting under the dryer: Your colorist will likely have you sit under a dryer to expedite the lightening process. Lightener starts working on contact, so your hair has been slowly lightening as lightener was applied to each section. For this reason, your colorist might only apply the dryer to the second half of your head (since the lightener had been sitting on the first side of your hair for longer). Or, if you have fragile hair or are going for more subtle highlights, your colorist might skip the dryer altogether and just have you sit in the chair without any heat while the lightener works its magic. Either way, you could be waiting for the lightener to process for anywhere from 15-45 minutes. Your colorist will come by a few times during this time period and check on how your hair is reacting to make sure your strands don’t over-lighten.
- Rinsing and applying a protein treatment: Once your stylist decides your strands have lightened to the right shade, you’ll head over to the bowl to be rinsed out. It isn’t uncommon for your stylist’s assistant to do this part, and rest assured that they’re specifically trained to execute these steps to perfection. Because bleach can be harsh on your hair, you’ll likely receive a protein treatment like Olaplex to restore the bonds in your hair.
- Applying gloss: While your hair is lightened by the bleach when your stylist hand-paints, chances are it’s not the exact tone you’re looking for. Perhaps your inspiration photos featured a golden blonde, but your base color is naturally ashier. In this step, your colorist (or their assistant) will apply toner to help blend your natural base and new highlights together and achieve the overall tone you’re going for, be it more golden or icier. Once a moisture-restoring gloss is applied evenly throughout the hair, it usually has to sit for about 10 minutes. Your colorist will check the color after this time frame and confirm if it should be rinsed out or if the formula should sit for a bit longer. Once you’re ready, you’ll be shampooed and conditioned.
- Trimming and blow-drying: Once you’ve received a tone or gloss, you’re ready to be trimmed and blow-dried. If you’re having a significant haircut the same day you’re getting balayage, your stylist will likely trim your hair while it’s dry before lightener is applied so your colorist doesn’t have to waste time lightening hair that’s just going to be cut away. But if you’re just getting a trim, it will take place after your hair is lightened.
While balayage does allow for fewer salon appointments spread further apart, there are some things to keep in mind between appointments to help keep your hair healthy and your color looking its best. For one, Heidenwith suggests doing a gloss or a hairline touchup. “Toning in between will help keep the desired tone in tact, while hairline touch-ups will help maintain brightness.”
Outside of the salon, Heidenwith says that moisture shampoos and conditioners are a must. “The ends get so saturated with balayage application that the color on the ends can feel drier faster,” he says. Turning to an oil, like Shu Uemura’s Essence Absolue Nourishing Protective Hair Oil ($69), will help as well, especially if heat styling is a part of your routine. “Also, a purple shampoo is good to use once in a while to protect the color from going too warm,” Heidenwith adds. So if brassiness does turn out to be a concern of yours, there are steps you can take to help preserve your color straight from the comforts of your own home.
The cost of balayage varies vastly depending on the current state of your hair and where you’re having it done. It’s recommended to book a consultation with your colorist before booking a balayage appointment. During this consultation, you can ask your colorist how often you would have to come in for touch-ups and what your colorist charges for these appointments.
For example, if you have brown to dark blonde hair, you could come in for two “full” services a year (where your colorist lightens sections all over your head) and one “partial” service (where only half of the sections on your head are lightened) if you’re willing to deal with a few imperfections (like brassiness) between appointments. If you want your balayage to look perfect year-round, you’d likely want to book two full appointments and two partial appointments.
Our Favorite Looks
Rich caramel and honey hues blend perfectly together, while springy curls add another dimension to this voluminous look.
As you can see from the ashy, silver hues throughout a raven-black base, this color has never been more delightfully bold and modern.
These long locks have been painted with a silky, neutral brown hue that brightens, albeit subtly. It’s brown balayage at its finest.
Pretty in Plum
We love the melding of these raven, burgundy, and plum hues. The highlights at the ends of her hair prevent the overall look from feeling weighed down.
The honey and golden hues frame these natural cool-brown tones beautifully, blending together and creating a soft glowing effect. It’s utterly romantic.
Pop of Platinum
If it’s a visually effortless look you’re after, this blonde balayage number is it. The color blend reminds us of a cloudy day at the beach when you wear a cozy sweater and bring a good book.
We love this high-contrast blonde and dark brown that calls to mind cookies and cream. Consider this cool-toned hue if your skin has pink, red, or bluish undertones.
This style, described by the colorist as “rooty caramel,” is relatively low-maintenance. Grown-out roots also contribute to its casual-cool vibe.
Subtle and Shiny
This chestnut brown balayage is so rich, it’s gleaming. Apply a hair oil to strands to ensure gloss for days.
Balayage refers to a lightening technique that involves lightening the face-framing pieces of the hair, the ends, and the top outer-facing layer of the hair while still maintaining some of your natural base color. Remember that balayage is a lightening technique, rather than a specific color, and it may or may not be the the best technique for reaching your color goals. You and your colorist should decide on that together. If your colorist does recommend balayage based on the current state of your hair and the color you’re looking for, then you’ll be pleased to know balayage looks more natural, produces less obvious lines of demarcation, and softer grow-out at your roots when compared to traditional highlights. All in all, it’s a great way to achieve gorgeous, low-maintenance “surfer” hair with just a few trips to the salon per year.