What's the Difference Between Partial and Full Highlights?

Learn how to choose the right option for your hair.

Back of woman with wavy, highlighted hair


So, you're about to schedule a highlight appointment when you're hit with a hard-hitting question: partial highlight or full highlight? If you're scratching your head trying to figure out the difference (all you know is that you want highlights that'll turn even Jennifer Aniston's head), you're not alone. 

With all those new techniques and finishes, it's hard sometimes to know what suits us best and how to choose a highlight shade or technique. A good hairstylist should use their expertise to help you understand the difference, but perhaps you haven't found your go-to yet. We turned to celebrity colorists Jafra Bryant and Reece Walker to learn how to make this decision. Here’s everything you need to know about partial highlights, including benefits, how to choose, and how they differ from full highlights.

Meet the Expert

  • Jafra Bryant is a celebrity and editorial colorist. With over 12 years in the industry, Bryant has worked with A-listers including Julia Garner, HAIM, and more.
  • Reece Walker is a bicoastal colorist, stylist, and hair extension expert for celebrity clientele like Victoria Beckham, Miranda Kerr, and Caroline Vreeland.

Keep reading to learn the difference between full and partial highlights and which technique is right for you.

What Are Highlights? 



Allen Berezovsky / Getty Images 

The overall process of highlights is using bleach to isolate the area(s) where you want brightness and working with the natural color for more or less dimension. Bryant usually goes with the most classic method of highlighting using foils. "This is a more popular technique because it's a foolproof, speedy way to guarantee a lift or lightening effect," Bryant says, adding that the process of foiling is pretty simple: "Isolate the pieces or section, put in foil, add bleach enough to cover so it saturates through the hair. Feather up or down for a seamless blend that can be manipulated later with gloss." Sometimes colorists will use heat or not and the results can range from soft and natural to super bright blonde, depending on the developer and stylist you're working with. "Using foil also allows me to use multiple shades in the highlighting service, which creates a soft blend between the client's natural color and the blonde lights," adds Walker. 

Highlights are strategically placed pieces of color that are lighter than the natural hair color. They can be done using a set pattern with foils or be freehand painted highlights such as balayage—each process and technique are vastly different in their approach but can reach a similar end goal depending on what the hair needs. 

That being said, Bryant adds that all the techniques have sub-categories and everyone works differently to achieve a common highlight goal. "There's no wrong or right, just art."

What Are Partial Highlights?

Partial highlights, like balayage, are a more freehand way of highlighting that can be gentler because it's painting "open-air." It's usually indicated for those who want warmer highlights, but not only. "Balayage can be just as bright as foils these days, especially with the new anti-breakage and ashy toners we have now," says Bryant. The colorist believes it can be gentler due to the different levels of saturation and different types of heat conductors that can be paired with balayage techniques for higher lift—rather than using a foil as a heat source. 

Partial highlights are only in sections, usually placed around the face to give off a brighter, face-framing look. Some stylists consider a partial highlight to be the entire top ​half or the top and side sections of your head. "You can also ask your colorist to include the hair underneath, so when you put your hair up it looks like more," says Bryant.

Partial highlights are ideal for those seeking a more natural look, as they're designed to lighten the hair the same way the sun would. "It's great for a quick brighten-up or root touch-up if you part your hair the same way every day," says Walker. It's also a good option for an introduction to adding some color to your hair. 

What Are Full Highlights?

A full highlight involves highlighting hair in every section of your head. This could be slightly lightening all of your hair or for something more dramatic, going from brunette to blonde. They offer a more dramatic look, as they wrap all around the head (think a perfectly painted balayage, multidimensional full-foil highlights, or a mix of partial and full highlights). "The main benefit is having everything done and knowing no matter how you wear your hair, the color will look great," Bryant says.

Partial Highlights vs. Full Highlights

Karlie Kloss


Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

For the budget-conscious, alternating between full and partial highlight appointments can be more cost-effective, as the highlights placed in the back of the head don't have the same growth as the highlights on the top of the head. "I've learned to balance them both when needed," says Bryant, who reveals a favorite regimen is doing a full once or twice a year and getting away with mostly partials and the occasional face frame depending on the look. "This way the client can save some time and money while keeping their color fabulous and not stuck in a rut."

The Benefits of Partial Highlights

  • Less expensive: partial highlights are typically cheaper than a full highlight service. "Most partials will be about $100 less than fulls on average," says Bryant.
  • Less damage: As you're only highlighting a few sections, you'll likely experience less hair damage.
  • It looks more natural: Because you'll still see your base color, partial highlights look more soft and natural.
  • Low maintenance: When compared with full highlights, partial highlights' new growth is less visible. "The time you can get before needing a full highlight can stretch beyond four to five months of needing a full. It depends on someone's natural color, where they get highlights to, and the brightness," Bryant adds. 

 The Benefits of Full Highlights

Chrissy Teigen blonde beach waves with side-swept bangs

JB Lacroix / WireImage / Getty Images

  • Big change: For those who want to go from dark to light, full highlights are a great option.
  • Great for fine hair: The hair will look more textured and dimensional with full highlights.
  • Endless options: You can go as subtle as blonde highlights or as dramatic as colorful highlights.
  • Versatile: According to Bryant, the color will look great regardless of half up, half down, braids, or swapping textures from curly to straight.

Do Partial Highlights Work For All Hair Colors?

Yes and no. Bryant explains that when it comes to different levels and depths of hair color, anyone can get a partial highlight. "The only reason I'd say no is simply because a lot of people think if they just did a partial it would look like everything is done or would be more cost-effective," he says. The expert alerts that only doing partials can look disconnected, with the underside of the hair making no cohesion to the top color, for example.

Take a few inspiration photos to your stylist to ensure you get the outcome you're after—and ask the expert which technique is best for it. Make sure to find inspiration from people who have the same skin tone and eye color to fully envision what you want your new hair to look like.

How to Choose Between Partial and Full Highlights

According to Walker, partials are great for those who don't want to see a lot of regrowth, don't have a lot of time, and want to keep their hair in good health. This is great for someone with lower maintenance highlights such as warmer shades and who don't mind a bit of root every so often. "Really blonde clients alternate between the two, and go with full highlights every second appointment," says Walker.

When the back of the head starts to look way too dark on a ponytail, then it's time for a full highlight. "They'll want color all the way around for a cohesive look and grow out depending on what they want their color to look like," Bryant explains. Full highlights are more of a high-maintenance color, keeping to fulls is perfectly fine to keep your hair color looking updated at all times. 

Both experts agree that spacing out your highlights and interchanging can help keep hair integrity giving different sections time to breathe and heal before going in again, especially for the ones with long hair. "My general rule is after three times of a partial, it's probably time for a full—unless you want to continue the depth underneath," says Bryant.

If the gap of the root look is not large and/or the top still covers the dark from the back part of your head, you're probably OK for a partial. Make sure to ask your colorist what to book for next time knowing a full highlight may be needed after a few times of partials. 

The Final Takeaway

Most people have no idea what to book an appointment for, so it is mostly up to the colorist to help educate them on the type of upkeep needed to maintain the look they want. "Finding the right colorist that understands this about foiling, free-handing, and adjusts to work with it is key," says Bryant. And keep in mind: Final highlighting decisions don't have to be made when scheduling your appointment. When in doubt, a good stylist will be open to full consultation with room to make adjustments on the day of your appointment.

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