I remember the first time I heard the word "balayage:" It was years ago, in reference to Gisele Bündchen's otherworldly mane. Like everyone else, I was enamored by the supermodel's sun-kissed highlights and the way the golden gradient provided dimension to her cascading bombshell hair. From then on, I associated the term balayage with dream hair—in other words, perfectly blended highlights that look like they were achieved by growing up on the beach in Brazil.
Years later, that visual association with balayage has stuck. Whenever I scroll through Instagram or Pinterest, I'm easily enamored by anything I identify as balayage that could work on my own hair. So when I made an appointment to get my hair colored at L.A.'s Society Salon, "balayage" is exactly what I asked for. But it wasn't long after having a seat that I quickly learned it wasn't really balayage that I wanted.
While flipping through photos of the hair look I sought to attain, the colorist, Amél, tried her best to gently correct my confusion. "The most important thing that people need to know about balayage is that it's a technique and not necessarily a look," she says. Instead of balayage, what Amél ended up using was a combination of teasing and foiling to create soft and diffused highlights. I left the salon with my literal dream hair—the epitome of my understanding of balayage perfection—and it wasn't even balayage.
Choosing a Shade: Amel advises that the best way to communicate with your colorist is with images of your desired result, then let your colorist use the mediums they gravitate to. "For example," she notes, "I prefer to paint, or balayage, directly onto hair that has already been pre-lightened to a lighter level or is naturally at a lighter level."
Maintenance Level: Low-to-medium. If the base color is similar to your natural shade, you won't have to sweat your roots growing in too much.
Goes Great With: Just about any hair texture, skin undertone, or eye color.
Price: Cost will vary based on your location but can range anywhere from $100 to $300+
Society's co-founder Sam DiVine, who trained alongside Sally Hershberger before revolutionizing the salon experience with the membership model, later sat down with me to walk through the balayage myth and why so many get it wrong. "Balayage in and of itself is just a technique that means painting the hair with color—like using a paintbrush and free-hand painting the hair," defines DiVine. "So rather than strategically going through and sectioning out hair with a tail comb and then foiling it very specifically, it's a little more visual—but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to yield a specific end result."
But because the technique has been used to yield really soft transitions and beautiful dimension (à la Bündchen), it's often been incorrectly perceived as the only way to get that result. "We have a lot of clients coming in who are super adverse to having any other technique done on them, when really there's a better way for them to get their desired result," admits DiVine.
"You could probably show four or five different photos that are all really similar and ask most women, 'Hey, how do you think this is done?' and they'd be like, 'Oh, that's definitely balayage.'" says DiVine. "But then you'd find out that it was either pure foils, or a combination of foils and balayaging, or maybe just all balayage." She explains that determining the best method really just depends person to person because it goes back to what's on your hair already, what's your natural level, what they have to do to lift the color, and also the end result you're looking for. "Balayage is not the end result," DiVine concludes. "Balayage is the technique you use to get to a specific end result."
Keep scrolling to see some of our favorite color jobs using the balayage technique.
Rich caramel and honey hues blend perfectly together while springy curls add another dimension to this voluminous look.
Color-treated curly hair needs a lot of moisture. Use a hair mask with hydrating ingredients, like Carol's Daughter Monoi Repairing Hair Mask ($32) about once a week to keep strands healthy.
Chocolate and Vanilla
We can't take credit for this deliciously accurate name—the color and moniker are courtesy of colorist Ryan Weeden, founder of Masters of Balayage and Wella Hair Global Ambassador. One might think the creamy white-gray hue would clash, but like the flavors themselves, they work together perfectly.
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.
Keep your color vibrant with a refreshing product such as Overtone. The brand offers excellent toning conditioners tailored to different shades.
Balayge can be a great way to achieve the tiger's eye hair trend without your highlights getting streaky.