Is chocolate balayage your new-season hair color? Get inspired with celeb looks and pro tips

Chocolate balayage is the perfect trend to refresh brunette hair – we've got the expert lowdown for your next appointment

Three headshots of celebs rocking chocolate balayage, including Claire Foy, Priyanka Chopra, Olivia Munn
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Chocolate balayage is the delicious-sounding hair technique that lackluster brunettes need to know about. 

There are lots of benefits to being brunette. It’s elegant, low-maintenance, and reflects the light better than other hair colors do for an extra shiny finish. The biggest downside (second to the fact that greys are way more visible in dark hair) is that brown hair can have the potential to look flat and one-dimensional. 

The solution? Bringing some lighter tones into the mix, using balayage hair to create brown hair with blonde highlights. “Chocolate balayage is a beautiful way to enhance an existing brunette hair tone while still keeping a natural look, which is very on trend right now,” says Sophia Martin, Color Technician at Trevor Sorbie Covent Garden. 

Our hair is meant to be in different tones. When you think that hair grows (on average) at a rate of half an inch per month, then the tips of your shoulder-length hair are at least two years old. They will have seen more sunshine and been exposed to more pollution than those shiny new hairs at the root - and chocolate balayage is the perfect way to mimic and enhance this natural shade graduation. 

Chocolate balayage explained

What is chocolate balayage?

Unless you’ve been swerving the salon for years, we’re assuming you’ve probably heard of balayage. For those in need of a quick refresher, the word balayage is French for “to sweep” and refers to an application technique where highlights are painted free-hand onto the hair. Now onto highlights vs balayage – unlike traditional highlights which start at the root, balayage is concentrated on the mid-lengths and ends. It’s also less precise, for a softer and more natural finish. 

The chocolate part of chocolate balayage refers to the shade, which will be a warm blend of rich coffee hair colors and chestnut tones. “Chocolate balayage is an easy-to-wear, warm-toned brunette that can be tweaked to suit many different complexions – which makes it naturally very popular,” says Tyler Moore, Expert Stylist at Live True. “These darker shades can make your hair look shinier, and the dimensional tones add movement and depth to the hair.” Gorgeous. 

What is the best balayage color for brown hair?

Not sure whether chocolate balayage will suit you? “If your hair is naturally dark, you will likely suit a chocolate brunette balayage,” advises Moore. “If your coloring is particularly pale, we just wouldn’t recommend going too dark to ensure you don’t look washed out.” In these cases, a milkier tiramisu hair or bronde hair shade can work nicely.

Naturally dark hair will need to be bleached initially to strip out the existing pigment. Your colorist will then use a toner (a semi-permanent color) to add the desired shade to your newly lightened balayage sections. The toner allows the colorist to control the tones of your finished color (warm, neutral, or cool) as well as the shade for a bespoke finish. “If your hair is a lighter brown or blonde, then a reverse balayage can be used,” adds Moore. “This is where toner is painted onto the hair to look like a balayage style. Chocolate balayage can be adjusted to suit almost everyone.” We love an inclusive hair color trend.

Is chocolate brown balayage high maintenance?

The beauty of balayage is in how easy (and inexpensive) it is to maintain. While traditional highlights will require regular costly refreshes to tackle re-growth at the roots, balayage doesn’t require the same upkeep. This not only makes it a cheaper option but also means you’re not damaging the hair by repeatedly bleaching. 

“Chocolate balayage is super low maintenance,” says Martin. “By blending the natural and chocolate tones together the grow out will be seamless. You can go a year without having the full balayage redone in the salon. However, I would recommend you ask your hairdresser for a regular toner and top up the color around the face to keep it looking beautiful and fresh.”

“Make sure to invest in your hair care too,” adds Moore. “Use the best shampoo and conditioner for color protection to prevent color fade and be sure to use a hydrating hair mask every one to two weeks, especially if your hair is bleached. It’s also important to get a good heat protectant to prevent damage, along with a UV filter during the summer to stop fading and discoloration.”

Chocolate balayage inspiration to show your hairdresser 

1. Midnight chocolate balayage

Rachel Weisz with chocolate balayage

Rachel Weisz

(Image credit: Getty)

Balayage is often (wrongly) thought of as a technique reserved for blondes, but Rachel Weisz is the perfect example of how beautifully it can work for even the deepest of brunettes too. Multi-dimensional chocolate strands add depth to her so-dark-it’s-almost-black hair. 

2. Barely-there chocolate balayage

Salma Hayek chocolate balayage

Salma Hayek

(Image credit: Getty)

Nervous about taking the plunge? Take notes from Salma Hayek’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chocolate balayage. Her colorist has used a smudging technique to lighten the mid-lengths to ends to replicate the way hair naturally lightens over time. Keep in mind that if your hair is naturally as dark as Salma’s it will need to be bleached, so weigh up whether a subtle change is worth the potential damage to your hair health. 

3. Warm chocolate balayage

Vanessa Hudgens chocolate balayage

Vanessa Hudgens

(Image credit: Getty)

One of the key summer 2023 hair color trends, focusing a lighter shade on the ends of your hair will add interest to choppy cuts like Vanessa Hudgens’ textured chopped bob. Chocolate brown hair already has a lot of red to it compared to cooler, smoky brunettes but dialing this up even further on bleached ends will flatter warmer skin tones. 

4. Golden chocolate balayage

Michelle Keegan chocolate balayage

Michelle Keegan

(Image credit: Getty)

From the volume to the length, pretty much everything about Michelle Keegan’s hair makes us envious. And we’re adding her expensive-looking color to our green-eyed list too. Michelle’s hair is sprinkled with light-reflecting golden strands, the kind of look that takes commitment (and at least a few hours in your colorist’s chair) to achieve.

5. Milk chocolate balayage

Zendaya’ chocolate balayage


(Image credit: Getty)

Look closely and you’ll see that only the very top of Zendaya’s hair is deep brown, melting into a rich milk chocolate tone from about 2 inches from the root. This, combined with some subtle babylights (a finer alternative to highlights), creates a brunette that feels fresh and modern.  

6. Chocolate balayage with a touch of caramel

Kate Beckinsale chocolate balayage

Kate Beckinsale

(Image credit: Getty)

If you’re planning on getting chocolate balayage, think first about how you intend to wear your hair. It does suit straight hair too, but you’ll make the most of the multi-tonal, multi-dimensional effects if you wear it curly or wavy like Kate Beckinsale. The caramel pieces look softer when blended against the brunette. 

7. Natural chocolate balayage

Joan Smalls chocolate balayage

Joan Smalls

(Image credit: Getty)

What we love most about Joan Smalls’ chocolate balayage is the way it enhances her natural color in a super subtle way. A bit like the old adage that no one should be able to spot good 'work', a lot of us aren’t heading to the salon looking for a dramatic shift in shade, but rather a little tweak or touch-up just like this.

8. Toffee-toned chocolate balayage

Claire Foy chocolate balayage

Claire Foy

(Image credit: Getty)

It makes sense that the shorter your hair, the higher up your balayage will need to begin. Claire Foy’s lighter pieces start perfectly in line with the top of her cheekbone to frame her face. A good colorist will be able to advise on the best techniques and placement for your unique face shape. 

9. Chocolate melt balayage

Emily Ratajkowski chocolate balayage

Emily Ratajkowski

(Image credit: Getty)

Coloring your hair can be tricky with a fringe (especially as it grows out), so we’d recommend following Emily Ratajkowski’s lead by avoiding adding any lighter pieces in this area. Focus instead on the mid-lengths and ends. We love how subtly Emily’s balayage is melted through the underlayer of her hair too, making it look fuller and thicker. 

10. Red-toned chocolate balayage

Priyanka Chopra chocolate balayage

Priyanka Chopra

(Image credit: Getty)

It’s a sweeping statement of course, and the color you choose is ultimately down to personal preference, but generally speaking those with warm skin tones will suit warm hair colors. Priyanka Chopra’s red-toned chocolate balayage is the perfect example, with extra pieces added at the front so keep these flattering tones close to her complexion. 

11. Glazed chocolate balayage

Sofia Vergara

Sofia Vergara

(Image credit: Getty)

One of the big pros of brunette hair over blonde is how easy it is to master how to get shiny hair. Brown hair reflects the light better, so you’ll get a glossier, healthier finish. Sofia Vergara’s hair is almost impossibly shiny with a more neutral tone overall than all-out warmth. 

12. Butterscotch-touch chocolate balayage

Mila Kunis chocolate balayage

Mila Kunis

(Image credit: Getty)

Proving that dark brown hair needn’t be dull or one-dimensional, we love the creamy, butterscotch tones in Mila Kunis’ hair. Opting to lighten smaller, narrow sections rather than larger chunks makes for a low-maintenance finish that will grow out beautifully. 

13. Sun-kissed chocolate balayage

Jamie Chung chocolate balayage

Jamie Chung

(Image credit: Getty)

If you’re a brunette, you’re likely to have tried using lemons or Sun In to lighten your hair during at least one childhood summer. And you’re also likely to have discovered that neither technique really works on properly dark hair. With lighter mushroom blonde pieces through the mid-lengths to ends, Jamie Chung showcases what the wonders of in-salon bleach can do to achieve the hair of our teenage (and current) dreams.  

14. Face-framing chocolate balayage

Olivia Culpo chocolate balayage

Olivia Culpo

(Image credit: Getty)

Having dark hair can be really flattering, but it can also wash out your complexion – especially during winter when sunshine is at a premium. Asking for balayage with a money piece like Olivia Culpo, where lighter strands are highlighted around the face, will make your skin brighter and healthier all year round. 

Jess Beech

Jess Beech is an experienced fashion and beauty editor, with more than eight years experience in the publishing industry. She has written for woman&home, GoodtoKnow, Now, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own and Chat, and is a former Deputy Fashion & Beauty Editor at Future PLC. A beauty obsessive, Jess has tried everything from cryotherapy to chemical peels (minus the Samantha in Sex and The City-worthy redness) and interviewed experts including Jo Malone and Trinny Woodall.