We've all come across lust-worthy colored hair—we're talking, the honied highlights Jennifer Lopez has been rocking for decades and those Instagram-worthy lowlights that you can't stop pinning. If you find yourself itching to change up your hair color but don't want to undergo a full-on transformation, both highlights and lowlights are great options. That said, there is a difference between the two, and knowing them will help you achieve the hair of your dreams.
Simply put, highlights lighten hair with strands of a lighter color while lowlights add dimension with strands of darker color. You can ask your stylist to add both to your hair, which can give the illusion of volume, depth, and texture. But between, balayage, all-over color, highlights, and lowlights, hair talk can be confusing, so we consulted with the pros for some insight to help make the process simpler.
Meet the Expert
Ahead, learn the difference between lowlights and highlights along with how to decide which one is right for you.
What Are Lowlights?
Whether you're looking to ash out your hair with some cool-toned strands or add a layer of richness with some warmth, lowlights can do both. "Lowlights are dark pieces that are woven into the hair that introduce more contrast, generally used as a quick-fix for solid hair color from over highlighting," says celebrity stylist Loretta Wollner. But, even if you're not trying to recover from getting one too many highlights, master colorist Emily Woodstrom explains how lowlights are meant to give the hair dimension and by adding them, you can shift the actual tone of your hair. "Choose a shade or two darker than your natural hair color to keep a natural look," she says.
Keep in mind, lowlights are meant to be more subtle than streaks. Typically, the darker colors are spread throughout the hair evenly (versus leaving well-defined sections of color). The look can be enhanced even more with balayage, which gives the stylist more freedom to paint color in rather than the more uniform foil technique.
Lowlights vs. Highlights
So, we've established that the gorgeous multi-toned locks we see on Instagram are absolute hair goals, but how can we decipher which are lowlights and which are highlights? Woodstrom explains that highlights are sections of hair that are lighter than your natural hair color while lowlights are sections that are darker. "Highlighting the hair means to lift the natural base using lightener or hair color—typically when you lift or highlight the hair you are going lighter," she says. "Lowlights would be bringing the hair darker to offer contrast."
Can You Mix Lowlights with Highlights?
The short answer: yes, especially when it comes to considering your natural hair color. While many think of their hair color as being just one shade (brunette, blonde, black), it can actually have many shades within it (think: dirty blonde, which is a mix of blonde and brunette, or chestnut, which can show up as a mix of brown and red). Your stylist may suggest adding a few lowlights in with your highlights to complement your base color. "Most clients would use a highlighting plus lowlighting technique to give a very blended, natural look," says Woodstrom. "This technique is best for a natural grow-out process. If your stylist chooses a soft, fine weave you could go several weeks without needing a touchup."
Though lowlights can introduce more contrast immediately, they fade rather quickly in the summer months and can wind up appearing brassy. Consider this if you have damaged hair, as this may mean you'll have to re-highlight already-highlighted hair, which can contribute to breakage, according to Wollner.
Do Lowlights Work for All Hair Colors?
The best part about lowlights is that they work for all hair colors as long as your stylist is experienced and formulates correctly. That said, Wollner notes that they can become tricky on someone whose natural base is a light brown, as well as over-processed blondes. "Clients should always have an in-depth consultation with their colorist to discuss both short-term and long-term results," she advises.
If your natural hair base is already dark and you still want to add depth by adding a few darker strands, your stylist can do this with lowlights using foils or balayage, which are more natural-looking alternatives to all-over hair color. To maintain the most natural color, your stylist will likely stick to a shade that's no more than two to three shades darker than your natural color.
How to Decide Between Lowlights and Highlights
Between lowlights, highlights, and all-over hair color, your head can spin with options. Hunt down inspiration photos of hair colors you're drawn to and consider this: What style of color are you aiming for? If you have light hair and you want to go several shades darker, you might be better off getting an all-over hair color. And, even if you're a die-hard hair highlighter, there may be times you want to ask for some extra lowlights (for example, during the wintertime for some warmth.