Highlighting and Lowlighting Techniques

Lucy Hale with blonde ombre hair


Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Highlights are the classic way to add dimension to your natural hair color. But what are lowlights? They're very similar to highlights, but instead of infusing lighter shades into your hair, lowlights involve adding darker hues for a similar effect.

The techniques for applying highlights and lowlights are virtually the same. Both create definition and brighten up dull or mousey hair. They can even completely transform your color.

Often, the hairstylist chooses the technique that they're most comfortable with or that they think works best with your hair type. Knowing what your options are can give you a leg up on your color consultation. Here are the differences between foil, balayage, and cap highlighting techniques.

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Foil Highlights or Lowlights

Foiled highlights and lowlights are the most popular method. Pieces of foil separate hair that will be colored or lightened from the rest of your hair. (Bleach is used to lighten, and dye is used to darken.)

Foils are favored by many hairstylists because they are very customizable. A wide variety of techniques have been developed over the years using unique sectioning and placement of the foils. With this method, highlights and lowlights can be made to look more natural or very bold and streaky—whatever you want.

Foils also allow highlights to be placed very close to the scalp without getting lightener directly on your skin, reducing chances of irritation.

It can be a pricey service and can take two to four hours to complete, depending on the thickness of your hair and the desired result.

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Balayage Highlights or Lowlights

Balayage started taking salons by storm in the aughts, even though the technique has been around since the 1980s. These highlights and lowlights are free-hand painted by the colorist. There isn't really a right or wrong way to do it, giving your stylist a lot of creative freedom.

Balayage typically creates a more natural, sun-kissed look than foil highlights. This is the ideal method for the ombre style. Because the results are more subtle than what foil highlights achieve, balayage highlights tend to grow out more seamlessly, without an obvious line of demarcation.

The skill set of your stylist is key, as this method requires strong artistry. An unexperienced colorist could quite easily destroy your hair color with misplaced balayage highlighting.

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Cap Highlights

Also known as frosted hair (hello, '90s), cap highlights are the dinosaur of highlighting techniques and are not used often in modern salons. This method involves placing a cap on the head, and then pulling pieces of hair through the cap using a small hook; these are the pieces that become processed.

While cap highlights can look nice and are much less expensive and time-consuming than foils or balayage, the options for customizing are limited. Getting close to the scalp can also be an issue with the cap, and long and curly hair can be difficult to pull through. It might be best to leave this method in the past.

The Art of Highlighting and Lowlighting

Getting familiar with these techniques can help ensure you get your dream hair color. Creating highlights and lowlights is definitely an art. Vet your stylist and communicate very clearly.

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