By Fiona McKim
Most blondes will agree that having freshly-applied highlights in hair is a feeling like no other. It's the reason we will put up with all sorts of inconvenience in order to get those bright, beachy strands - because make no mistake, highlights are inconvenient.
They take at least an hour in the salon chair - more likely several - and they're usually the priciest color technique on the menu. Any lightening agents used risk damaging your hair's condition, and your newly blonded 'do isn't exactly low maintenance once you get it home either.
So why do we bother? Because, like faffing around with round brushes and the best hair dryer to create an ostensibly 'undone' blow-dry, or spending an hour working on your thrown-together 'I woke up like this' messy bun, highlights are worth the extra toil for their unbeatably natural and uncontrived appearance.
Ironic, isn't it? Just as a natural makeup look actually takes longer than a bold one, this blonde hair technique repays all that time, effort, and money spent with superior, sun-kissed strands perfectly suited to your hair's own tone, length, and style.
Highlights in hair - everything you need to know
"Highlights, originally known as naturalizing, is a woven stitch that turns pieces lighter than your natural base," says Harriet Muldoon, Larry King colorist for Redken. "They can be subtle or more vivid depending on the effect you're after."
While old-fashioned methods used a torturous cap and hook method, modern salons almost exclusively use pieces of foil to separate the hair and pick out the lighter pieces. "We carefully weave out strands of hair, painting them in foils to keep colors separated and allow areas of darker hair to remain, helping to achieve a multi-tonal result," explains Issie Churcher, principal colorist at Josh Wood Colour.
Using foils to section is the main difference between getting highlights in hair and its Parisian sister technique, balayage hair, where the sections are painted freehand. You can have as many or as few highlights as you and your colorist choose - the beauty of highlights in hair is how adaptable they are to your natural tone.
Types of highlights in hair
"There is a wide range of colors and effects that can be created using highlighting," says Issie. "You can color the hair to appear super-soft and subtle by choosing more caramel, toffee, and honey-toned shades, giving someone with naturally darker hair a very natural subtle glow."
"Or, on lighter natural hair, you can create bleached out, beachy blondes - hair that appears lightened from sun and sea air. Placement of foils and how many applied to allow you to be creative by dialing up the amount of blonde or dialing it down for a softer, more subtle lift."
Adam Reed, UK Editorial ambassador for L'Oréal Professionnel and owner of Adam Reed London, predicts that 'Bardot Blonde' will be one of the top hair color trends in salons. “Anyone that knows me knows I love a good blonde, and I love Brigitte Bardot - that soft 1960s shade," says Adam. "From a technical perspective, when you think about what hairdressers had to work within the '60s, we have so moved on. Now innovation allows us to create that nostalgic blonde with really beautiful biscuity and soft caramel tones coming through.
What happens during a highlights appointment
Wondering what happens when you book in for highlights in hair? This is such a personalized service that appointments vary depending on the look you want, but you'll always kick off by having a good old chat with your colorist.
"We begin with a consultation, as it’s important to find out what look we’re wanting to achieve," explains Harriet. "A more vivid brighter blonde will require more trips to the salon. For a more natural effect, less is more, so fewer appointments are required. In terms of tones, I usually think the warmer the skin tone, the warmer the hair, cooler skin tones work better with ashy, bleached shades."
Depending on whether you’re getting a full head or half, the appointment can take 3-4 hours. This will include the color service, toning, any required treatments, and style. How often you need highlights refreshed depends on the effect you’re after. Highlights are usually done every 8-12 weeks. Anything longer, and I would go for a more balayage lived in blend."
Can I do highlights at home?
The honest answer is yes, you can, but that doesn't mean you should. Home highlight kits exist, but not many mainstream brands offer a highlighting product, and that's because, frankly, they don't tend to work very well.
There is a reason colorists undergo years of training to get this technique right. You have to choose a tone that will look natural, know how long to leave the color in to 'lift,' consider placement and have the ability and equipment to separate ultra-fine strands that make a feasibly natural-looking light. That's before we even get to the back of the head - It's tricky enough to learn how to dye your own hair using all-over color in the easiest of home highlight kits, let alone fiddling about with foils and bleach back there.
Understandably, desperate times may have called for desperate DIY highlighting measures, but the difference between a pro and DIY job is stark. "One of the things I’ve enjoyed seeing over the last year is people doing their own color at home and then coming in and having it done in the salon," agrees Adam Reed. "Then we see them really appreciating the skill that it takes when a hairdresser creates that beautiful, expensive-looking blonde."
The best products for highlighted hair
It's no secret that any color process, particularly those that involve bleach, can negatively impact the condition of your hair. If you want to keep your highlights looking their best, you'll need to use condition-boosting products at home.
"Moisture is key to keeping blondes looking healthy," agrees Issie. "Josh Wood Colour Miracle Mask is perfect for a weekly intensive treatment to keep blondes well hydrated and strengthened.
Josh Wood Colour Miracle Mask
If, like me, you find your biggest problem with hair masks is actually remembering to use them, I highly recommend treating yourself to one of Garnier Ultimate Blends Hair Food masks.
These retro-looking jumbo-sized tubs are hard to miss on your bathroom shelf, there are five fruity varieties to choose from (I personally love Banana & Shea, but pick whatever floats your boat). Crucially, you only need to leave it on for three minutes to do its nourishing thing - so there are really no excuses.
Garnier Ultimate Blends Hair Food Banana & Shea
Besides weekly treatments, using the right daily haircare can help keep blonde hair feeling soft and healthy. Strengthening shampoos and conditioners designed to boost elasticity and protect the hair is a great idea.
The Shu Uemura Ultimate Reset range is as gentle and caring as shampoo and conditioner can be. The star ingredient is Japanese rice extract, which helps maintain moisture in the hair and acts as an antioxidant to neutralize environmental damage. It also smells like an exotic spa, which you'll continue to get wafts of throughout that day.
Shu Uemura Ultimate Reset Shampoo & Conditioner
Any blonde hair color can be prone to dullness or yellowing, which is where toning haircare can provide an instant color refresh in between appointments.
"I would always recommend the Redken Color Extend Blondage shampoo for highlights to keep your blonde nice and fresh," says Harriet.
Redken Color Extend Blondage shampoo
While Issie recommends Josh Wood Colour’s Gloss in Icy Blonde, "it's perfect for refreshing blonde tresses and neutralizing unwanted orange or yellow tones."
Josh Wood Colour Shade Shot Gloss Icy Blonde
Highlights in 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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