In my many years as hair colourist, it’s surprised me to learn that a lot of women don’t really know the difference between a highlight and a lowlight, let alone the different techniques for achieving the former, arguably more popular, look. Many of my clients know the terms for the processes — namely, foils and balayage — but they don’t often understand what’s involved in each one. Before you go to the salon seeking high or lowlights, arm yourself with some of the basics — and a photo!
“Highlights” is a general term that refers to strands of hair that are lighter than the base colour they’re being laid upon. It’s commonly believed that a highlight is blonde, but actually a highlight only refers to a colour that’s not as dark as the base strands. The size of the highlights, the level of lightness, the tone, and the placement are all left up to the colourist — after you’ve communicated the look you’re going for, of course. Highlights aren’t a one-size-fits-all, and neither is the way they are administered. Moreover, the type of highlight depends on a number of things: the look you want, the kind of hair you have, how blonde you wish to go. A rundown of the three main types of highlighting techniques, plus an explanation of lowlights, may help you decide what to ask for at your next colour appointment.
People with thick, heavy hair, who like the look of chunkier highlights with more contrast (a stripier, less all-over blonde), should look into balayage. A French word meaning “to sweep,” balayage actually refers to the sweeping motion produced by the brush when the colourist paints swatches of hair.
Balayage is a freehand technique in which swatches of hair are carved out from the whole head of hair and painted with a lightening agent. This is done in revolutions around the head, and each painted swatch is then covered in cellophane. As these highlights are less systematically placed, the resulting look is fatter highlights. By contrast, foil highlights — which I’ll explain in greater detail below — produce a more symmetrical head of highlights.
I prefer the balayage look when I want something more dramatic. I recommend it for clients looking for a casual, beachy look. Lighter tips and an almost ombré appearance help to define this look. But, balayage, which requires higher volumes of peroxide, may not be the right choice for everyone. Always talk to your stylist before diving into any new process.
Now, if you’re looking for a very symmetrical highlight, foils might be the way to go. For clients interested in more of an all-over blonde look, foil highlights, which are administered on top of and underneath the hair, are an excellent option. Foils can blend more with your natural base colour than balayage, resulting in a more even distribution of lightening.
Foil highlights involve sectioning off hair and weaving strands — thick or thin depending on the look you’re going for — and painting them with a lightening agent before wrapping them in foil. The foil serves two purposes: It keeps the lightening agent from getting on the surrounding hair, and it keeps the product moist so it doesn’t dry up and weaken. I prefer this technique for its exactness. It produces a much more controlled look than balayage, and as a colourist, I know precisely where the colour is going and what shade of lightness will result.
In spite of some personal preference on the two techniques described above, I believe that a skilled colour artist can achieve many different looks with any technique or combination of techniques. Some stylists and their clients like the look that results from getting both high and lowlights.
Unlike highlights, which are lighter than the base strands, lowlights are darker strands of colour that are woven into the hair. This process typically produces depth and adds contrast when hair becomes overly light and one-dimensionally coloured from being highlighted repeatedly. General oxidation and/or fading can occur from regular highlighting, which is another reason someone might opt to even things out with lowlights.
A great technique to keep hair from becoming washed-out and monochromatic, lowlights should also be monitored, since, over time, your ends may become dark and muddy from over-processing. Greater than the decision you make on your hair style and colour, however, is choosing your stylist.
And, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Always bring a photo with you to the salon. I advise clients against using technical/professional terms because it’s simply not as effective as displaying a photo of the look they hope to achieve.