What is Balayage Hair? The Only Guide You'll Ever Need

lauren conrad balayage hair inspiration


Balayage hair seemed to blow up seemingly overnight. Out of nowhere, our Instagram feeds were suddenly flooded with images of dimensional blonde locks with ultra-bright, face-framing pieces, tagged with #balayage. The trend took off for good reason⁠—balayage (pronounced bah-lee-ahj) is a fairly low-maintenance way to go lighter, as it preserves your base color and often blends your natural roots for softer grow out. But what exactly is balayage, and how do you correctly ask your colorist for this look? For starters, balayage is technically a technique used by your colorist, rather than a specific color itself. Confused? No worries, we break down everything you need to know, below, with the help of three pro colorists. Ahead, everything you need to know about balayage, what to expect from the process, how it differs from other highlighting techniques, how much you can expect to pay, and more.

Meet the Expert

  • Lisa Satorn is a senior stylist at LA's Nine Zero One salon, home to celeb clients Selena Gomez, Hilary Duff and Taylor Swift.
  • Olivia Casanova is a trend-setting colorist making waves between New York City and Miami's IGK salons.
  • Jordan Heidenwith is a Chicago-based colorist at Dennis Bartoleomi salon, known for their natural looking blondes, and deemed one of Modern Salon's top 100 colorists to follow.

What Is Balayage?

Contrary to popular belief, balayage is a color application technique, rather than a specific color itself. The word itself is actually French, and means to sweep or paint. Bright around the face, blended at the roots, lighter ends, and effortlessly natural are all descriptors to balayage hair. "Think undone, cool surfer girl hair," explains Olivia Cassanova of New York City's IGK salons, "Almost like you spent a summer at the beach." The balayage technique is used to achieve a very naturally blended, lightened look, and while we typically associate balayage with becoming blonde, the same technique can be used to create caramel, espresso, or even pastel strands.

Now the question is, how do we get there? Achieving balayage hair means having your color applied by way of a painting process, rather than folding your hair into foils (as with traditional highlights). This painting method gives your colorist a more artistic, freehand expression. Such an organic application results in a perfectly soft, natural looking gradient that so many of us desire. "I usually recommend balayage to my clients who already have lighter hair naturally," says Cassanova, "because most of the time they’re guaranteed a pretty lift. However, it is good for anyone who wants a more natural look, and also to someone who wants something low maintenance and easy to manage." It's no wonder the request for balayage has risen these last few years.

But while balayage might sound like the perfect fit to you, your colorist might have other color application methods in mind. Even if you want the balayage look (brighter around the face and ends, blended roots), your colorist may still opt for a foil application to get this look. It all depends on the current state of your hair, as well as your color history. There's never a harm in mentioning that balayage appeals to you, or that you think it's the way to meeting your color goals, but remember to leave the approach to the professionals. Afterall, balayage is a technique.

If you're still confused about what balayage is, keep this metaphor in mind: surfer girl hair that is lighter around the face and on the ends with a soft, blended root is your vacation destination, but there are multiple routes you can take to get to that destination (maybe you drive, maybe you fly). Balayage is one of the routes you can take to get there, but it may or may not be the best route for you.

What's the Balayage Process Like?

Unlike traditional highlights, which use foils, balayage involves painting freehand onto the hair with a brush dipped in lightener.

"It's a freehand highlighting technique," says Lisa Satorn of LA's celeb-inhabited Nine Zero One salon. "By using a sweeping motion, it creates a soft, multidimensional and natural looking highlight." Colorists use their brushes to paint sweeps of vertical highlights onto the hair with strips of cotton or saran wrap layered between each section, which protects the application by avoiding any color bleeding or spotting. There are no foils used in balayage—only painting.

With balayage, your colorist hand-selects which sections or strands of hair will have lightener applied to them. Typically, lightener is more highly concentrated on the face-framing pieces of the hair, the ends, and the top layer of hair for a more dimensional look. Depending on your base color and your desired end result, your stylist will typically "leave out" a few sections of the hair and not dye or lighten them. This helps create that soft, dimensional, blended look that balayage is so famous for. This process also makes for a softer grow-in, with less-harsh lines of indication as your hair grows in-between appointments.

Balayage is usually executed with bleach, and will typically involve a round of toner or gloss as well. It's recommended to see your colorist for a consultation first before booking your balayage appointment so that you both have plenty of time to discuss the best fit for you before the bleaching day. Every appointment is a little different based on the current state of your hair and what you'd like your end result to look like, but here's a general framework for what you can expect at your balayage appointment, which can take anywhere from 3-5 hours.

  1. Your colorist will evaluate your hair: Even if you've already come in for a consultation, your colorist will begin by evaluating your hair and inspiration photos (be sure to bring a few that represent your color goals for your hair). They'll likely ask you questions about how often you heat style, which way you part your hair, how you usually style it, how often you're committed to returning for touch-ups, and if you're open to having a trim before deciding on the final color plan for the day.
  2. Sectioning and hand-painting your hair: Once you and your colorist have decided on a final color plan together based on your goals and lifestyle, they'll mix up some lightener and bring it over to the station where you're seated. This is your chance to go to the bathroom, make sure you have a beverage, and that your phone/book/magazine is out in your lap, because once the painting process begins, you'll be seated in your chair for 1-2 hours, depending on how much hair you have and how much lighter you're going. Your colorist will work section by section, painting specifically selected strands from a section of hair and then covering that section with cotton or saran wrap so the lightener doesn't bleed into unwanted hair sections. The lighter you're going, the smaller the sections will be and the more strands from each section they will choose to paint. During this period, be prepared to answer follow-up questions from your stylist, like what your natural hair texture looks like (and if you tend to wear your natural hair texture).
  3. Sitting under the dryer: After 1-2 hours, your colorist will likely have you sit under a dryer to expedite the lightening process (lightener works faster when heat is involved). Lightener starts working on contact, so your hair has been slowly lightening as lightener was applied to each section. For this reason, your colorist might only apply the dryer to the second half of your head (since the lightener had been sitting on the first side of your hair for longer). Or, if you have fragile hair or are going for more subtle highlights, your colorist might skip the dryer altogether and just have you sit in the chair without any heat while the lightener works its magic. Either way, you could be waiting for the lightener to process for anywhere from 15-45 minutes. Your colorist will come by a few times during this time period and check on how your hair is reacting to make sure your strands don't over-lighten.
  4. Rinsing and applying a protein treatment: Once your stylist decides your strands have lightened to the right shade, you'll head over to the bowl to be rinsed out. It isn't uncommon for your stylist's assistant to do this part, and rest assured that they're specifically trained to execute these steps to perfection. Because bleach can be harsh on your hair, you'll likely receive a protein treatment like Olaplex to restore the bonds in your hair.
  5. Applying gloss: While your hair is lightened by the bleach when your stylist hand-paints, chances are it's not the exact tone you're looking for. Perhaps your inspiration photos featured a golden blonde, but your base color is naturally more ashy. In this step, your colorist (or their assistant) will apply toner to help blend your natural base and new highlights together and achieve the overall tone you're going for, be it more golden or more icy. Once a moisture-restoring gloss is applied evenly throughout the hair, it usually has to sit for about 10 minutes. Your colorist will check the color after this time frame and confirm if it should be rinsed out or if the formula should sit for a bit longer. Once you're ready, you'll be shampooed and conditioned.
  6. Trimming and Blow-drying: Once you've received a tone or gloss, you're ready to be trimmed and blow-dried. If you're having a significant haircut the same day you're getting balayage, your stylist will likely trim your hair while it's dry before lightener is applied so your colorist doesn't have to waste time lightening hair that's just going to be cut away. But if you're just getting a trim, it will take place after your hair is lightened to cleaner look at your ends. After your trim, watch your new balayage color come to life while you receive your balayage.

The Difference Between Balayage and Ombré Hair

Now, balayage and ombré are both common requests for lightened hair, but their meaning is completely different. While balayage is a technique, ombré is a desired effect or outcome.

Ombré, also a french term, means "shaded" or "graduated in tone". That in mind, balayage could technically be used to achieve the ombré color effect. "When ombré” became a thing, balayage was just a simple answer to make all the ends light!" Heidenwith shares. "But true balayage, to me, does start closer to the root." What happens at the roots is one of the main differences between the two outcomes. With the ombre gradient going from typically darker roots to lightened ends, there isn't much color applied near the roots at all. Ombré almost appears to be perfectly grown out hair color, whereas balayage is used to achieve more of an all-over color from roots to ends.

Satorn assures us, "Balayage can be used to get an ombré effect when painted on the lower half of the hair." The trick of the matter? "Leaving the top half darker," she tells us. And there are other ways to achieve ombré hair, too. Balayage is by no means a requirement to get there. Another frequented technique to getting ombré hair color is by backcombing the hair, painting the ends and protecting the application in foils. Although the ends get "painted", balayage is traditionally done without the use of foils. "The foils and backcombing technique doesn't allow you to paint close to the scalp," says Satorn, "where with balayage, you can paint almost all the way up to the scalp if desired."

While both terms refer to lightened hair and an effortlessly natural looking regrowth, the main point of differentiation is the lack of color near the roots that's found only with ombré.

The Difference Between Balayage and Highlights

Now, we've already established the origins of balayage, but despite it coming on the scene in the '70s, it didn't surge in popularity here in the US until somewhere around 2010. "I started getting a lot of requests for balayage starting about 7 or 8 years ago," says Cassanova. "Before [balayage], I was still doing a traditional, classic foil look (think circa 2000s; very blonde highlights to the root)." So, what's the difference?

Balayage and traditional foil highlights are both application techniques that target lighter hair, but have varied results. Highlights are done by finely weaving small, quarter-inch sections of hair with a tail comb and painting bleach onto those selectively woven strands, which are placed inside a piece of foil where it then gets folded up and enclosed in preparation to bake under some sort of heat to help lift and alter the hair's current state. Balayage, as our experts explained above, is applied more organically, with a freehand approach and much less precision. "Balayage gives a multidimensional highlight, which can appear more natural because it creates different levels of lightness," explains Satorn. "Traditional foils gives a more uniform and even finish, creating a single dimensional highlight."

If your ultimate goal is to go from dark to light all over, then traditional foil highlights might be the route your colorist decides to go, largely due to Satorn's point of creating that single dimensional, uniform finish. "I think when choosing a technique, it all depends on the client's hair and what their desired look is," confirms Heidenwith. "For most “high contrast” looks I usually use a foil in some sort of way to lock in heat and ensure lightness."

"Prior to balayage I was trained to highlight with foils and only did that for 10 years until I found balayage," says Satorn. "It was such a therapeutic way to highlight. I was hooked! But I still absolutely love highlighting with foils and love to incorporate both techniques when I highlight." 

The Benefits of Balayage

When it comes to the benefits of balayage, aside from its coveted results, Cassanova claims "balayage can be very versatile, making it a good option for most people."

  • Looks more natural than traditional highlights: The nature of balayage is to paint specifically selected strands and blend them with your natural base. As such, balayage looks much softer than traditional foil highlights, which tend to have more obvious lines of demarcation.
  • Low-maintenance: Because the lightened strokes are painted on so softly to achieve that natural look, they leave no trace of harsh, blunt lines or obvious regrowth, allowing for more time between your appointments. Your roots will also grow in more softly than they would with foil highlights.
  • Color is less-likely to bleed during application: An under-the-radar benefit with this technique, is that colorists can get up close and personal with your roots when using balayage to apply bleach onto the hair. In comparison, when using foils colorists have to ensure there's enough room away from the scalp, because once heat is applied it causes the bleach to swell and expand toward the roots. That swelling can cause what's called bleeding. With balayage, colorists use a barrier between their sections to prevent the layers of bleach from touching. "The benefit of using cotton or saran wrap in between sections is to prevent the lightener from bleeding, which could create a blotchy dye job," says Cassanova. If foils are placed too close, it could leave what's called a "bleed", or a spot of bleach that's leaked onto the hair beneath the foil, and that can be difficult to fix.
  • Less-damage: Because balayage doesn't involve saturating your entire head of hair in bleach (as is the case with double-process), you use less bleach and thus get a lightened look with significantly less damage to your hair.

The Drawbacks

After listing all the benefits, balayage almost seems too good to be true. We had to ask our experts, is there any downside at all to this approach?!

"Sometimes people with very dark hair can pull very red/orange warm tones when getting balayage done," says Cassanova. "If you’re someone who doesn’t like warm tones, then balayage is probably not for you. The hair can turn brassy more quickly than with traditional highlights (depending on your natural hair color)."

Satorn agrees, telling us that with even the slightest drop of warmth in your color, it could be very difficult to achieve your desired tone with balayage."I love offering balayage to clients that love a hint of warmth to reflect against their highlight (and do not mind more than one appointment to get to their desired lightness)." While a toner can quickly fix unwanted warmth, it is prone to fading out and leaving you with that undesirable brassiness. For some, keeping up with more frequent toners between balayage appointments might be worth it, but that just steers toward more of a higher maintenance upkeep. 

Heidenwith also adds that balayage tends to be applied with higher developers, which adds the risk of damaging fragile ends. "I'll lower my developer as I go down the strand if need be, or [apply with] a little less saturation." Unfortunately, as clients, we don't always have a say in what's mixed into our color bowls, and colorists have busy jam-packed schedules to uphold, so if you do have damaged strands, you might want to consider a more natural way to lighten your color. "These days," says Heidenwith, "we have products to protect the hair from too much damage, but those products can only do so much."

Is Balayage Safe For Natural Hair?

So far, the only setback that we've really seen with balayage is that it's prone to pulling warmth out, which may or may not be a deal breaker for those of us with darker natural base colors. But aside from our color, what does our natural texture have to do with it? Can women with natural hair get balayage done?

Compared to other, more traditional approaches to lightening the hair, Cassanova tells us that balayage is a little easier on all hair types, especially curly-haired girls who put their curl patterns at risk when choosing to go lighter. "There is no heat being retained inside of any foils forcing your hair to lift quicker, which can sometimes cause damage if over-processed," she advises.

"I take extra care to follow the curl pattern of the hair and will leave more negative space between each balayage highlight, making sure to keep dimension," Satorn says. With the proper application and formula, she assures us that the hair won't get damaged, no matter what type of texture you have. "Naturally coily hair is a perfect candidate for balayage because it won’t make your highlights look stripy," says Cassanova. "As long as it's done slow and steady with a bond builder such as Olaplex or Uberliss." These treatments, Olaplex and Uberliss, are conditioning agents that many colorists have grown to include in their lighteners to help keep the integrity of the hair. When performing a chemical treatment such as bleaching, these formulas help repair the bonds of our strands and strengthen the fiber elasticity so the hair is slightly less prone to breakage and extreme damage. Satorn agrees that adding a bonder like Olaplex will ensure the hair stays healthy.

Helpful Tips For Your First Balayage Appointment

Alright, so we've covered most of what you need to know about balayage. Based on your desired results, you've made your appointment with your colorist and now it's time to go into the salon. To support your claim and keep you on the same page with your colorist, here are a few tips from our experts provided on how to arrive fully prepared for your trip to the bright side:

  1. Always bring multiple photos that represent your goal: "There are so many techniques and names for things that all have different meanings to stylists. Photos make it easier to get on the same page because we can all agree on things by visually pointing out certain details."
  2. Come with clean hair: "I love to balayage on clean hair so I know there isn’t a buildup of product, dirt or oil that may hinder the lifting process," says Satorn.
  3. Try a conditioning treatment a few days before your appointment: "You can prep your hair by using either Olaplex No. 3 or Uberliss Bond Sustainer at home a few weeks leading up to your appointment," says Cassanova. "This way you can help strengthen your hair to ensure minimal damage when lightening."
  4. Arrive to your appointment how you'd normally style your hair: When it comes to balayage, your colorist will paint differently depending if you wear your natural curls or a stick-straight style. It's extremely tempting to roll out of bed and not even run a brush through your hair before heading to the salon (since your hair is about to get done anyway), but arriving with your hair styled how you would normally wear it helps colorists better lighten the right parts of your hair.

What's Maintenance Like For Balayage Hair?

Lastly, let's talk maintenance. While balayage does allow for fewer salon appointments spread farther apart, there are some things to keep in mind between appointments to help keep your hair healthy and your color looking its best.

"Balayage is made to be lived with for a while," says Heidenwith. "Some clients find that they really only need to come into the salon just two times a year for a full service." Phew! That's not so bad. If you're turning to balayage just to add a touch of extra warmth and dimension, going in twice a year should be more than enough. However, if you're significantly lightening your hair, you should expect to go into the salon a few times a year. "My average balayage client comes about every 3-4 months," says Satorn. "But can that can easily go up to six months since there is a seamless grow out." It all depends on what you're willing to live with. For example, your highlights won't just disappear after 3-4 months, but if you opted for a cooler tone, your highlights might go a bit warmer and brassier (especially if you spend a lot of time in the sun, pools, or salt water). If you can live with a brassier shade, you should have no problem spacing your appointments six months apart.

If you're relying on balayage to break up your natural base color or gradually make the transition of going blonder, Heidenwith suggests upping the ante to 3 or 4 full services a year. If you can afford to, "doing a gloss or a hairline touchup is always a good idea," he advises. "Toning in between will help keep the desired tone in tact, while hairline touch ups will help maintain brightness."

Outside of the salon, Heidenwith says that moisture shampoos and conditioners are a MUST. "The ends get so saturated with balayage application that the color on the ends can feel drier faster," he says. Turning to an oil, like Shu Uemura's Essence Absolue Nourishing Protective Hair Oil ($69), will help as well, especially if heat styling is a part of your routine. "Also," Heidenwith adds, "a purple shampoo is good to use once in a while to protect the color from going too warm." So if brassiness does turn out to be a concern of yours, there are steps you can take to help preserve your color straight from the comforts of your own home.

What Can You Expect to Pay for Balayage Hair?

The cost of balayage varies vastly depending on the current state of your hair and where you're having it done. It's recommended to book a consultation with your colorist before booking a balayage appointment. During this consultation, you can ask your colorist how often you would have to come in for touch-ups and what your colorist charges for these appointments.

For example, if you have brown to dark blonde hair, you could come in for two "full" services a year (where your colorist lightens sections all over your head) and one "partial" service (where only half of the sections on your head are lightened) if you're willing to deal with a few imperfections (like brassiness) between appointments. If you want your hair to look perfectly balayaged year-round, you'd likely want to book two full appointments and two partial appointments.

In New York City, a full service with tip can cost upwards of $400, and a partial between $200-$300. In other parts of the country, full service appointments can be as low as $150 and partial appointments as low as $75-$100. In short, it's difficult to give an exact figure because the needs of everyone's hair, where they're having it done, and the credentials and rates of the colorist differs.

Balayage Hair Inspiration

This look gently slopes from brown into platinum, and frames the face with highlights. Despite the color transition, this technique ensures that the overall look feels cohesive.

Rich caramel and honey hues blend perfectly together while springy curls add another dimension to this voluminous look.

As you can see from the ashy, silver hues throughout a raven-black base, this color has never been more delightfully bold and modern.

These long locks have been painted with a silky, tawny hue, framing the face perfectly and adding a nice contrast with her dark eyebrows.

This color blend reminds us of a cloudy day at the beach, when you wear a cozy sweater and bring a good book.

We love the melding of these raven, burgundy, and plum hues. The highlights at the ends of her hair prevent the overall look from feeling weighed down.

The honey and golden hues frame her natural cool-brown tones beautifully, blending together and creating a soft glowing effect.

We love this high-contrast blonde and dark brown that calls to mind cookies and cream high cream.

This style, described by the colorist as "rooty caramel," is relatively low-maintenance.

This chestnut brown balayage is so rich it's gleaming.

The Takeaway

Balayage refers to a lightening technique that involves lightening the face-framing pieces of the hair, the ends, and the top outer-facing layer of the hair while still maintaining some of your natural base color. Remember that balayage is a lightening technique, rather than a specific color, and it may or may not be the the best technique for reaching your color goals. You and your colorist should decide on that together. If your colorist does recommend balayage based on the current state of your hair and the color you're looking for, then you'll be pleased to know balayage looks more natural, produces less obvious lines of demarcation, and softer grow-out at your roots when compared to traditional highlights. All in all, it's a great way to achieve gorgeous, low-maintenance "surfer girl" hair with just a few trips to the salon per year.

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