Single-Process Color vs. Highlights: What’s the Difference?

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@addisonraee / Design by Camden Dechert

When it comes to hair color, you have three main options: highlighting, single-process color, or double process. But which one is better for you? It's hard to figure it out on your own, especially if you're interested in a specific haircut or have natural hair.

We always recommend having a hair color consultation with a professional if you aren't sure what you want. Bring pictures along of hair you like or want to achieve. Your colorist will know what steps to take to show off your haircut and unique features. They will also find the right shades of color to flatter your skin tone. To ensure you don't encounter unnecessary damage, be sure to mention any other hair processing you've had done—anything from chemical hair straightening to at-home dye jobs should be mentioned. 

To help you figure out the right option for you, we enlisted the help of NYC-based master colorist Stephanie Brown and hairstylist Darren Anderson.

Meet the Expert

  • Darren Anderson is a professional hairstylist in Chicago and South Florida. He is a reputable source of expert hair advice, covering everything from styling to coloring.
  • Stephanie Brown is a master colorist at IGK SOHO in NYC.

Read on find out everything you need to know to find the perfect color for your hair.

What Are Highlights?

Lily Aldridge hair with caramel highlights

Jason LaVeris / Contributor/Getty Images

Highlights are an ideal option if you have a great base hair tone, and don't want to amend your natural hair color too much. Highlights are often the introduction to hair coloring since they enhance your hair by adding streaks that are a shade or two lighter than your natural color. They look the most dynamic when the stylist uses at least two different shades. You can also ask for face-framing highlights to brighten your complexion.

"With highlights, your colorist should be using more than one color, not just bleach," says stylist Darren Anderson. "Great highlights should be layered to produce tonal variations. There should be lights, mediums, and darks to create depth and translucence in the hair. Highlighting should be like painting a masterpiece, and you can’t do that with just one color."

There are four types of highlights: basic foil highlights, balayage or "hair painting," chunking or "piecing," and lowlights.

  • Foil highlighting is the most traditional highlight method. The technique adds uniform color to hair, and it can be made streaky or well-blended. You can get many different shades for a natural look.
  • Balayage, or "hair painting," allows the stylist to add natural stripes of color to hair in large or small swaths. This is a great choice if you have a base color you love and just want to go a couple shades lighter in certain areas. You won't need to get your roots touched up as much with balayage as you do foils, and it grows out better than any other color option.
  • Chunking (also known as piecing) is when thick stripes of color are painted onto the hair. It was a popular technique in the '90s, but is still used today. 
  • Lowlights allow the stylist to add darker shades of hair, and they're often combined with highlights. This can give your color even more contrast and dimension.

If you want to spice up a simple haircut but have very few layers, highlights are a great option. The style is particularly flattering on brown and dark blonde hair. "Highlights add dimension and can disguise gray on light brunettes to blondes," says Brown.

"Highlights can be damaging especially if they aren’t done correctly," says Brown. Make sure you moisturize your hair after getting highlights. A professional stylist can ensure that you get the color you want, without the damage.

What Is Single-Process Color?

Blake Lively red hair

Stephen Lovekin / Staff/Getty Images

On the other hand, if you want to go several shades lighter or darker than your natural hair color, single-process (also known as all-over color) is the way to go. This process changes the color of your entire head of hair, giving you a new, one-dimensional tone that can be as dramatic or subtle as you like. 

"Single processes or base colors are good for covering gray and is minimally damaging," says Brown. "Single processes gives you an all over one color, with little to no dimension. You may get slight variations of color if you use semi permanent. "

Single process color is a great choice if you have very short hair that can't be easily highlighted. It's also a nice option for adding warmth, which can boost your skin tone, or if you want to cover a considerable amount of gray hair. All-over color can complement a trendy haircut that may look a little too "let me speak to your manager" with highlights. It's also nice when you're trying to darken your hair in a uniform way. 

Keep in mind that due to root growth, all-over coloring will need to be touched up every four to eight weeks, while highlights can last up to two or three months.

Ask your stylist about a gloss treatment following your color. This step can really add a boost to the color and make hair shinier.

Can You Get Both Highlights and Single-Process Color?

You can also get both highlights and single-process color. This is a good choice if you, for instance, want to cover gray hair but still want the extra dimension highlights offer.

"Yes. You can do both, but you may not get the highlights as light as you want," says Brown. "Or you hair can be drier or a little more damaged—but it can be minimal as long as it’s done correctly and with a professional."

Another thing to consider is the cost. In most salons, single-process color is cheaper than highlights. Additionally, single-color tends to be gentler on your hair than highlights. The bleach used in highlight formulas can cause damage, particularly if you have them done often, or use other chemical hair treatments.

What About Double-Process Color?

Eva Marcille short blonde hair-single process color

Maury Phillips / Contributor/Getty Images

The alternative to single-process color or highlights is a double-process color. Double-processing changes your entire hair color while adding dimension and extra color through the second treatment.

"A double process is platinum," says Brown. "Usually the harshest on the hair since you are stripping it completely to get platinum blonde. It’s best to have short hair or know that you will have to cut your hair after. "

Typically, the double-color process is used when you want to take dark hair much lighter. Stylists begin by bleaching out your natural hair color (which could take one or several hours) then apply the new color. It can also be done with an overall color, then a highlight treatment during the second stage. This process is often the secret to the great hair we see on many celebrities, but it comes at a price. Not only will you be paying for two separate color treatments—which gets pricey—but too much of it can lead to damaged hair.

"Your hair will feel very different after getting this done. You will need to take care of you hair after with conditioning treatment at minimum of once a week," says Brown.

Avoid a lot of heat styling, which can lead to breakage and split ends. When you do heat style, use a heat protectant every time. Talk to your stylist about whether your hair is healthy enough to take double-processing, and get tips for caring for your hair afterward.

The Final Takeaway

Giselle highlighted blonde hair

KMazur / Contributor/Getty Images

To decide which option is best for you, look at your natural hair color and how you can reach your hair color goal with the least amount of damage to your hair. "If you have gray and it bothers you, I say go for a single process," says Brown. "If you have slight gray or you are blonde with gray, highlights might be a better choice to disguise the gray instead of covering."

If gray hair isn't an issue, Brown says to consider highlights. "If you have no gray, I don’t recommend doing a single process unless you really don’t like your color—and maybe want to be a redhead or a richer brunette. I don’t recommend single process blondes, they tend to look flat and brassy," she says.

"If you are looking for a change, I say start looking at pictures to see what you like and go from there," she says. "Hair color is to enhance what you have—so have some fun with it!"

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