With summer fast approaching, you might find yourself making a beeline to a colorist for sun-kissed highlights that'll send that out-of-office vacation email for you. But while staying in all winter gave us the freedom to experiment with color without worrying about the grow-out process ("Nobody is seeing me anyway," I often found myself saying), we're now out and about more and it's hard to maintain even the most muted lightened strands.
Highlights require more frequent upkeep than meets the eye depending on how fast your hair grows, hence why we have a tendency to opt for multi-dimensional, yet low-maintenance coloring procedures like balayage and melting that blends the color further down in your hair. But what do you do when you really want those all-over highlights, but can't commit to a salon visit every six weeks?
Enter the root smudge, a method of blending your natural tone into highlights, subtly softening the dreaded line of demarcation. Done well, a good root smudge creates a sleek transition that leaves room to grow, buying you some time between foils. Read on to learn everything you need to know about root smudging, and find out if you’re the right candidate for this cool, understated look.
Meet the Expert
- Min Kim is a New York City-based celebrity colorist and L’Oréal Professionnel Global Ambassador.
- Joey LaBeija is a lead colorist at the Jenna Perry Hair Studio in the East Village.
What Is Root Smudging?
The root smudge or root shadow is a foil-free fix that freshens up your look by blending your natural color into new highlights, blurring the line of demarcation that shows precisely where your roots end and the highlights start. “The main objective with a root smudge is to create a lived-in look that lasts longer than a traditional highlight,” explains colorist Joey LeBeija. “Placement is key with this service, and a good root smudge will make you look like you’re always standing in good lighting.”
This is achieved by using a shade very close to your natural color, think one to two shades lighter, to create a mini gradient close to your roots. “[The root smudge] creates a softer transition from where new highlights have been placed, which creates a more organic and natural vibe,” says master colorist Min Kim, who specializes in blending, balayage, and color correction.
Root Smudge vs. Root Tap or Root Melt
Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about the world of root touch-ups, but with a number of terms such as “smudge,” “tap,” or “melt,” you may not know how to ask for the right treatment for your hair. The key differences between these techniques lie in how far the blend is taken down the hair shaft, as well as how drastic the difference is between the colors being blended together.
“Root taps and smudging live closest to the regrowth,” says Kim. “Root melts are applied and blended down further. Root shadows are used to blend grown-out color and are more contrasting—picture a dark natural root with pink or blonde ends—versus shadow melts, which create a more seamless transition from natural to highlighted hair.” And when asked about fusing roots with unnaturally dyed colors, Kim added, “A root shadow or melt is perfect for overdue regrowth, even with fashion shades.”
“Root smudging, tapping, and melting are all iterations of one another, with the sole difference being their application process,” says LaBeija. “A root shadow is applied from the scalp and dragged three to five inches down the hair for a more lived-in look, where a root tap is going to be applied much more precisely and delicately to preserve brightness, usually to the areas around the hairline. When you’re blending that root color with a highlight, [then adding] a lighter color to your ends, you’ve now entered the wonderful world of color melting, my personal favorite. In my opinion, all three need to be combined to achieve the most seamless and natural-looking color.”
That being said, among these terms, “root smudge” and “root shadow” are more often used interchangeably. “The nuances between the names often vary from region to region and especially from artist to artist,” says Kim, so it’s always best to clarify your exact goals with your colorist.
Benefits of Root Smudging
A root smudge is perfect for anyone who wants to make their color last with as little upkeep as possible. It opens up a world of possibility for any dark-haired folks who previously felt deterred from trying something new, now that there’s a low-maintenance method to making your lighter color look natural and effortless.
The top benefit, of course, is spreading out your highlight appointments, as a root smudge can go up to two to three months without a touch-up. To get the most out of your root smudge, Kim recommends getting the treatment done on fresh foil highlights: “If hair is too grown out, you are most likely looking at a root melt.”
But hours away from the salon chair aren’t the only advantage, as LaBeija offers up a wide range of additional uses for root smudging:
- Trading in highlights for a balayage. “This is also the perfect service for someone wanting to transition from traditional foils to balayage but doesn’t have quite enough root to be painted without compromising the integrity of the hair.”
- Reviving old, grown out highlights. “Light colors need a darker color to lay against to pop, so root shadows are a foolproof way to make old highlights feel brand new.”
- Newly graying hair. “We call this gray blending, and [it] is ideal for those with less than 25-percent gray hair.”
How to Prepare for a Root Smudge
Kim advises that the key to a smooth root smudging appointment—and any hair appointment, at that—is to arrive with sample pictures or videos of your desired result. As Kim previously explained, the usage of terminology can vary. This can make it tricky to know if you and your colorist are talking about the same thing, so help your colorist help you: “Guarantee your desired result by confirming with a visual.”
And with a wide range of undertones, color matching can be risky business (for all our DIY-ers, we recommend leaving this one to the pros). According to LaBeija, “Coming to the salon with fresh, clean hair is always ideal so your colorist can see the way your hair reflects light.”
What to Expect From a Root Smudge
“Clients can expect to spend most of their appointment laying down in the shampoo bowl, as a majority of root melting is done on wet hair to maintain luminosity and translucency. The only time I generally do root shadows on dry hair is to blend out resistant gray hairs,” says LaBeija.
As for how long you’ll be sitting? Expect only a fraction of the 2 to 4 hours you often spend getting full foils done. Typically, for a root smudge, the color only needs to process for 15 to 20 minutes. “The application and processing time are relatively quick in relation to traditional color services,” says LaBeija. “Depending on the desired result, clients can expect appointments as short as an hour from start to finish.”
The cost of a root smudge will be relative to a single process service at your go-to salon. This starts at $115 at Butterfly Studio Salon in the Flatiron District, where you’ll find Min Kim, while single process treatments at Jenna Perry Hair Studio range from $150 to $250.
LaBeija adds, “If your colorist is doing more detailed work by combining a root smudge with a custom color melt or a highlight, you can expect to pay upwards of $300 to $500.”
The Final Takeaway
The root smudge is the perfect solution for dark-haired folks who want a lighter look, but are concerned about the grow-out phase. As the line of demarcation can be pretty harsh depending on the contrast between your base and highlights, the root smudge creates a seamless transition that helps you make the most out of a fresh color.