By Fiona McKim
Balayage hair is one of those beauty terms that many of us have heard of, but fewer can accurately define. Do you know how balayage works, what the differences between balayage and highlights are, and which one would be best for your hair? Let's find out.
This modern color technique originated in France, as most of the good ones do, and roughly translates as "to sweep" or "sweeping" en français—which offers a pretty good idea of what's involved. Essentially, hair dye is painted on sections of the hair freehand, without foils, caps, or any other kit that would create a rigid pattern.
This freewheeling method means two things: Firstly, balayage hair really needs to be created in a salon by an expert colorist with an eye for placement. This is not a technique to be attempted at home. It also means balayage can be adapted to suit any hair color, texture, and styling preference. It looks as good on low-maintenance, "blast with the best hair dryer and go" hair just as it does a masterfully constructed messy bun or wavy hairstyle to show off those multifaceted tones.
Et voilà: With balayage hair, the rule is there are no rules—except that freedom of placement, of course. The rest is down to you, your hair, and your colorist.
What is balayage hair?
"Balayage hair is a freehand technique which is painted on visually to create a more contemporary feel," explains Salon Sloane colorist Sophie MacCorquodale, who has created color for Gucci campaigns and also happens to be the beautifully-balayaged Scarlett Johansson's preferred colorist when in the UK.
"I work with my clients to achieve multi-dimensional color, whereby a bespoke color and tone is developed for each client. Most natural hair has lots of different tones, and by using this technique, we respect and enhance that."
"The beauty of balayage is it doesn’t have to start at the root; you can just add color to the ends or lighter around the hairline to frame the face. A combination of lighter at the ends and hairline, slightly darker at the roots going to blonder at the ends also works really well."
Balayage vs highlights
If you usually have highlights but wonder if balayage hair could be for you, a few factors can help you decide. Both can suit any hair type, from short hairstyles to curly hairstyles, so really it comes down to the look you want to achieve.
"Highlights is a foil-based technique, which means you can lift blondes lighter as the foil insulates the hair so you can achieve maximum lift. Balayage will give a more golden blonde and softer sun-kissed, loose look," says Sophie.
As well as the lift, picking between balayage and highlights will determine the overall appearance and maintenance of your color. As highlights run right up to the roots of the hair, they look brighter and more uniform but also require regular touch-ups to prevent an obvious root line from growing in. Generally, balayage grows out more softly, so it's a good option for those who can't get to the salon regularly.
"My balayage clients generally come approximately every three months to keep it looking fresh—if it’s more subtle, you won't need to come as often," explains Sophie.
Balayage on dark hair
Much like highlights, we tend to associate balayage hair with blondes. But actually, this subtle color technique is a perfect way to add a bit of interest to darker hair, according to Neil Maclean, Founder of Neil Maclean Hair Studio.
"What’s great about cinnamon balayage or adding copper tones into your hair is that you can keep any light strands from the sun, blending bronze tones throughout the hair to add warmth and depth to your color," says Neil.
"This color is also ideal for women who might want to switch their hair up and add some warmth, but not necessarily a red. It's the perfect in-between. During your next appointment, ask your colorist for advice on the best tone to suit your skin and current hair color. The result should be a glossy, multi-dimensional look."
Getting the most out of your balayage appointment
When booking an appointment for balayage, try to bring in a few pictures of a color you like the look of, either on a celebrity, from social media, or from the handy gallery at the end of this page! Then your colorist can factor in your visual tastes while using their expert eye to create a bespoke look.
"When a client asks for balayage, I consider skin tone, eye color, and hair color in order to choose the tone to flatter all aspects of the face," says Sophie. After your consultation, your colorist will mix up a bespoke color, paint it onto the hair and leave it to set or "cook" in much the same way as highlights. The color is then washed off, and your new balayage tones are revealed.
Naturally, the type of balayage you have determines the appointment time, but as any highlighted blonde will know, these color services are rarely super-speedy. "The time it takes depends on how much color the client wants to achieve, whether they want a completely new look or a little lift. But I would say approximately one and a half to three hours," says Sophie.
Of course, not every balayage appointment needs to be a total color overhaul, as proven by the launch of Speedy Services at L’Oréal Professionnel salons . This menu of 45-minute color fixes includes Halo Highlighting to refresh tired lights and Boost Your Balayage, which uses the tactical placement of lighter and darker effects around the face and jawline for a quick color revive.
Does balayage damage hair?
The beauty of balayage is that it's designed to work with your hair, not against it. But there's no getting away from the fact that any color process, particularly those that lighten the hair, can cause hair damage. This makes it ultra-important to take good care of your 'do in between appointments.
"There is always some form of damaged caused when bleaching as you're using alkaline agents to lift the hair," explains Harriet Muldoon, Colorist at Larry King Salon. "However, there are steps and treatments to do at home to maintain strength. The new Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate regimen is a game-changer for all those who color their hair. It's formulated with citric acid, an alpha hydroxy acid that helps protect weak bonds and improve the hair's strength and resilience after a bleach or color service."
"I'm always a big fan of the Olaplex range," says Sophie. "Particularly the 0 and step 3, which work on retaining the bonds within your hair shaft, so the structure of the hair and hair health is optimum."
"Sisley Hair Ritual Colour Perfecting Shampoo prolongs and stops the color from fading after repeated washes, so hair feels light, soft, and shiny. I would also recommend Sisley Regenerating Hair Care Masque—this regenerates and strengthens damaged hair, leaving the hair feeling nourished and hydrated."
If you notice your balayage dulling over time, avoid the temptation to retouch at home with any permanent dyes—you'll risk ruining all the expertly-placed balayage your colorist worked so hard to create.
Instead, use toners to ensure lightened hair stays fresh-looking. Shampoos are a low-cost way to work toning into your routine and are effective without being too fussy. Purple works best for blondes, blue for brunettes.
Balayage hair inspiration
As woman&home's Senior Beauty Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more beauty products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about a brilliant beauty find on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair dye experiments and cute shih-tzus)
Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013, working under legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know about the industry (clue: learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism).
In a previous life, Fiona studied journalism back home in bonnie Scotland and honed her skills as a features writer at publications including Junior and Prima Baby, with a brief and terrifying stint on the showbiz gossip pages of a tabloid newspaper in between. She's a skincare fanatic who can’t resist adding an extra step to her routine if it’s all the rage in Japan, loves fragrance, has fun with makeup and never turns down the chance to test a new hair tool. Basically, she loves it all.
When not slathering herself in self tan or squinting at a tiny ingredients list on a moisturiser, you’ll probably find Fiona enjoying something to do with food - cooking it, eating it, cajoling her friends into trekking across London to try a hyped pop-up in a dirty car park.
Come to think of it, the hot dinners and beauty products are probably about even.
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