Highlights, babylights and balayage for brunettes: which hair colour technique is right for you?

Brown hair with blonde highlights

From the benefits of babylights to fade-proof product wonders, beauty editor Annie Vischer guides you through lifting your colour and your mood this summer…

It is time to dispel the myth that highlights exist purely for blondes. Many brunettes (myself included) swerve highlights for fear of ending up with tiger-esque stripes. Animal prints might be as big as ever in the fashion arena this summer, but they have no place in a ponytail.

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But hair dye technology has come a long way since the uniform foil wrap days of the noughties, and the natural-look options for those in possession of darker hair abound. Any shade, grey included, can be taken just a few notes lighter in soft, indiscernible sections, for brown hair with blonde highlights so natural you’ll have people wondering where you just jetted off to, instead of which particular salon you sat in emanating eau d’ammonia for a couple of hours.

Hair colour ideas for brunettes: which highlighted look is right for you?

Brown hair with blonde highlights

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Brown hair with blonde highlights will flatter most skin tones, with warming shades that will camouflage easily to create a natural look to see you through any season. The most common techniques for lifting brunette hair are traditional foils or balayage (where the colour is applied freehand).

Brunette balayage

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Balayage is the hair trend that's here to stay. Year after year, in salon after salon, women ask for this grown-out, highlighted look, that's effortlessly natural and so easy to maintain. It can be as subtle, or dramatic as you like.

Balayage is a French word, meaning to 'swoop' or 'paint', giving the stylist artistic license to create a unique look for each client. Think soft and natural highlights and lowlights that will give brunette hair a sun-kissed look, with less noticeable regrowth.

Babylights for brunette hair

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The last few years have seen a plethora of new colouring techniques creep their way into mainstream salons, and it’s often difficult to navigate the pros and cons of each one to hit on what is going to work for you. With this in mind we offer up a fool-proof option – babylights.

Babylights are a great route for everyone, regardless of tone or texture. Award-winning colourist Jack Howard is the man responsible for bringing balayage to the UK, a big dog in the hair colour world, and a champion of babylights.

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"Babylights are super fine sections of colour," he says, "and the placement is bespoke to each individual. A colourist can spread a few babylights through the hair to add a little shimmer or you can have hundreds of them for a more obvious colour change."

Their distinguishing factor is that they are incredibly delicate, offering more scope for a less-is-more approach to highlights if you are a first-timer.

Products to use for brown hair with blonde highlights

Shampoo and conditioner

You wouldn’t wash sensitive skin with any old cleanser, so afford your hair the same care. Lightened hair is more porous and fragile, so ensure your shampoo and conditioner are tailored to nourish it.

That means no sulphates and products that aim to protect your colour. For those wishing to ward off brassy tones, use a violet shampoo twice a week. Try Redken Color Extend Blondage Shampoo, £16.50.


Your hair suffers from sun damage too, so don’t leave it exposed. It would be a travesty to spend time and money on a subtle colour job, only to have it frazzle up to a streaky Sun-In look mid-getaway. A mist of protection is essential. Try Rita Hazan New York Lock + Block Protective Spray, £21.

The mask

Lightened hair retains less moisture, so replenishing those supplies is essential. Add a dose of nourishing fatty acids into the mix and you up the ante no end. Masks are made to penetrate deeper into the hair shaft, so they work on a level that your conditioner cannot. Shu Uemura Art of Hair Color Lustre Mask, £45.90.

How to dye your brunette hair at home

We err on the side of leaving this sort of work to the professionals, but if you trust in your do-it-yourself abilities, make sure to abide by these words of wisdom…

Be specific

Go for kits made for balayage and highlights. Pick your shade and follow the instructions to the letter.

Freestyle If you are using a normal DIY dye and winging it, remember less is more. You can always treat yourself to another session in a week or so if you are keen for more of an impact.

Get a grip

Have a few hair grips to hand so you can apply your colour with more precision, section by section.

Colour block

Use a barrier to avoid staining your skin and areas of hair that you don’t want to lighten. A liberal application of Vaseline does the job.

Stick to cream

Go for cream hair colour formulas for highlighting, as this allows you to be precise.

Lauren Hughes
Lauren Hughes

Lauren is deputy editor at woman&home.com in the UK and became a journalist mainly because she enjoys being nosy. With a background in features journalism, Lauren has worked on the woman&home brand for four years. Before woman&home Lauren worked across a variety of women's lifestyle titles, including GoodTo, Woman's Own, and Woman magazine. After starting out working for a local paper in Yorkshire, her journalism career took her to Bristol where she hunted out stories for national papers and magazines at Medavia news agency, before landing a job in London working as a lifestyle assistant.

Lauren loves helping people share their stories, bringing experiences to life online, honing her interview techniques with everyone from authors to celebrities, headteachers to local heroes. As well as having a good nose for a story, Lauren has a passion for the English language and years of experience optimizing digital content to reach the widest audience possible. During her time at w&h, Lauren has worked on big brand campaigns like the Amazing Women Awards and assisted in developing w&h expert-approved Buyer's Guides—the place to go if you're looking to splash out on an important purchase and want some trusted advice. In addition to her journalism career, Lauren also has a background in copywriting for prestigious brands such as Inhabit Hotel, eco-development K'in in Tulum, social enterprise The Goldfinger Factory and leading London architect Holland Harvey, using language in all its glorious forms, from detailed guidebooks to snappy social content. 

A big fan of adventure, Lauren is also a keen travel writer and loves sharing tips on where to find the best places to eat, drink, and be merry off the beaten track. Lauren has written a series of travel guides for London hotels and loves sharing her insights into a destination's cultural and culinary offerings. If you need a recommendation on any UK destination, she's more than happy to help. At the weekend, you'll usually find her hanging out with her pet cat (or anyone else's pet she can get her hands on), escaping to the countryside, or devouring a good book. 

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