My first foray into hair color began with thick, blonde streaks in my naturally dark brown hair nearly 10 years ago. Suffice to say, it wasn’t my best look. What followed over the next few years was a string of highlighting disasters—my caramel highlights faded into an unnatural red-ish hue, the blonde money pieces I insisted on turned an unnatural-looking white from too much sun exposure, and sneakily fast-growing hair left me with a harsh ring of color about two inches down from the root.
And in that torturous journey to great hair (which, if I say so myself, I’ve now achieved), I tried every technique in the book—balayage, ombré, babylights, you name it. While the differences were always subtle to my boyfriends-of-the-moment, they were pronounced and at times life-altering to me. To fix my hair woes, it became clear I had to understand what exactly was being done to my hair rather than just playing on my phone while a stylist slaps on some dye and hoping for the best.
A critical lesson in my hair coloring journey? The (very real, very important) difference between balayage and ombré, and why the two aren’t even necessarily apt competitors. Read on for everything you need to know about balayage versus ombré, straight from professional hairstylists Justin Toves-Vincilione, Cody Renegar, and Harry Josh.
Meet the Expert
- Justin Toves-Vincilione is a professional hairstylist and Authentic Beauty Concept advocate.
- Cody Renegar is a celebrity hairstylist, licensed cosmetologist, and master barber with more than 25 years of experience.
- Harry Josh is a celebrity and editorial hairstylist and the creator of Harry Josh Pro Tools.
What Is Balayage?
According to Renegar, balayage is “a hair color technique in which the stylist strategically hand-paints color directly onto the hair, creating a more natural, blended, lived-in result.” The French technique usually focuses on the top layer of hair to create a semi-gradient look, which allows for longer, more natural-appearing transitions from dark to light colors, and vice versa. All three experts agree: Balayage creates far more natural-looking results than traditional highlights.
The combination of soft highlights and darker natural strands creates a dynamic look that’s full of body and movement. It can even help fake the appearance of thickness for thin-haired folks.
Longevity is a major benefit when it comes to balayage. As Toves-Vincilione explains, the hand-painted application and blending creates dimension that lasts for months with little to no upkeep. Since the color is not directly on the scalp, any new hair growth blends in seamlessly. As hair grows, the highlights stay atop that first layer of hair, growing out evenly and softly without any harsh color separation. As a result, it’s fairly low maintenance and less damaging on the hair.
Balayage’s customizable nature is also quite compelling. It can be used to blend out unwanted hair color, add points of light to dull areas, and even act as a canvas for vibrant or pastel colors, Toves-Vincilione shares.
But don’t let the benefits fool you: Balayage takes a true expert to be done right. Josh warns that balayage touch-ups can wreak havoc on your ends. Meanwhile, both Toves-Vincilione and Renegar point out that it can take a few sessions to reach your desired look with balayage. Because open-air balayage lifts slower than traditional methods of highlighting, it can take two or even three sessions for things to really come to life. And the technique can be a bit limiting in terms of haircut options—for instance, balayage isn’t as flattering on a haircut with a lot of layers, according to Toves-Vincilione. That being said, a smart stylist would mention this or suggest another technique in such a case.
Other than finding a well-trained, trust-worthy expert, there aren’t many cons when it comes to balayage; you might call it the laissez-faire of hair coloring.
What Is Ombré?
Ombré isn’t so much a technique as it is an effect. According to Josh, ombré is identified by a color contrast that begins dark at the roots, blends into a medium shade in the middle, and is lightest toward the ends. The result is a dramatic difference between the roots and ends of the hair, with the two shades blended in the middle, says Renegar. Hair is generally darker at the roots and slowly fades into blonde down the length of the hair, creating lived-in results that mimic hair’s natural color change in the summer months.
The effect is especially great on brunettes who want to incorporate more blonde into their hair but may not have a skin tone compatible with those lighter hues, or those who want to experiment with color but don’t necessarily want a dramatic change. By keeping the dark, more natural tones near the face with a lighter midshaft and ends, ombré can make for a more natural-looking blonde moment.
As for maintenance, ombré hair is pretty easy since any new growth blends naturally into the dark top layer, says Toves-Vincilione. It’s also easy to transition from, and has fairly minimal hair damage (except on the ends) since there’s usually little to no process on the roots or scalp.
While upkeep is minimal, Josh points out that the initial process can be fairly lengthy and uses more color than standard highlights. As a result, Toves-Vincilione says ombré might not be the best option for someone with dry or fragile hair (since the ends require bleach).
It’s also only realistic for individuals with either virgin or previously lightened hair. Achieving an ombré without damage is nearly impossible if you have any sort of existing permanent color in your hair already, he says. Even still, ombré is a popular choice that’s somehow simultaneously bold and natural-looking with little upkeep and less damage than a full-on dye job.
How They Differ
Balayage and ombré feel like somewhat similar concepts, but they differ in a few key ways. Using the simplest of definitions, balayage is a technique of hand-painting or sweeping hair color along the hair’s surface whereas ombré is a dramatic, two-toned hair color effect that’s typically darker at the top and lighter at the bottom. The difference in word usage here is key: Balayage is a highlighting technique while ombré is a hair color effect.
Though both ombré and balayage offer the opportunity to add some lightness into the hair, ombré completely changes hair color toward the ends in a more uniform fashion, Josh explains. According to Toves-Vincilione, most looks created with balayage feature dimension and natural color in between the highlights themselves, while an ombré style has no dimension or natural color left in between sections. As a result, an ombré style requires more color (and therefore creates more hair damage) than balayage does.
And while ombré can look somewhat natural, it’s more dramatic than the sun-kissed, lived-in results one gets from balayage.
How to Pick the Right One for You
While it’s not usually a matter of one versus the other, ask yourself what you’re really looking for. Do you prefer a subtler, more natural and dimensional look? You might go for balayage then. Or perhaps you want something bolder that has more of a gradient to it, in which case ombré likely fits the bill.
Find inspiration pictures and bring them to your color consultation appointment. A good colorist will help you decide which look will be more flattering and which one is best for your lifestyle and hair type.
And while we’re at it, we might as well do a quick rundown of other, similar techniques.
- Traditional highlights are generally done by saturating pieces of hair with a lightener or hair color and wrapping them in foil. Within that general category, there are four basic types of highlight application: foil highlights, hair painting, frosting, and chunking. Foils allow for more control over where the highlight is placed.
- Lowlights are like highlights, but dark. Rather than lifting the natural base using lightener or hair color on well-defined hair sections, lowlights are more subtly spread throughout the hair evenly to add dimension and contrast. You can actually even use a balayage technique to apply lowlights, if that’s something you’re into.
- Babylights are very subtle, lightly applied highlights meant to mimic child-like, baby-blonde hair (hence the name). The incredibly fine technique generally creates a natural-looking, radiant, and dimensional blonde hue to the hair.
- Sombré is a “soft ombré” look that uses highlights to create a more gradual, natural transition of color from root to tip while adding dimension and subtlety.
The Final Takeaway
Ultimately, the question isn’t “To balayage or to ombré?” so much as it is, “Well, what kind of look are you going for?” When it comes down to it, experts are experts for a reason; do your own research, but don’t be afraid to lean on them for advice and suggestions. And whether you choose balayage or ombré, be sure to use color-safe haircare and incorporate regular hair masking into your routine to combat dryness and help nourish your strands.