Contrary to popular belief, balayage is a color application technique, rather than a specific color itself. The word itself is actually French, and means to sweep or paint. Bright around the face, blended at the roots, lighter ends, and effortlessly natural are all descriptors to balayage hair. The balayage technique is used to achieve a very naturally blended, lightened look, and while we typically associate balayage with becoming blonde, the same technique can be used to create caramel, espresso, or even pastel strands.
Now the question is, how do we get there? Achieving balayage hair means having your color applied by way of a painting process, rather than folding your hair into foils (as with traditional highlights). This painting method gives your colorist a more artistic, freehand expression. Such an organic application results in a perfectly soft, natural looking gradient that so many of us desire. “I usually recommend balayage to my clients who already have lighter hair naturally, because most of the time they’re guaranteed a pretty lift.
However, it is good for anyone who wants a more natural look, and also to someone who wants something low maintenance and easy to manage. It’s no wonder the request for balayage has risen these last few years.
But while balayage might sound like the perfect fit to you, your colorist might have other color application methods in mind. Even if you want the balayage look (brighter around the face and ends, blended roots), your colorist may still opt for a foil application to get this look. It all depends on the current state of your hair, as well as your color history. There’s never a harm in mentioning that balayage appeals to you, or that you think it’s the way to meeting your color goals, but remember to leave the approach to the professionals.
Afterall, balayage is a technique.
What’s the Balayage Process Like?
Unlike traditional highlights, which use foils, balayage involves painting freehand onto the hair with a brush dipped in lightener.
By using a sweeping motion, it creates a soft, multidimensional and natural looking highlight. Colorists use their brushes to paint sweeps of vertical highlights onto the hair with strips of cotton or saran wrap layered between each section, which protects the application by avoiding any color bleeding or spotting. There are no foils used in balayage only painting.
With balayage, your colorist hand-selects which sections or strands of hair will have lightener applied to them. Typically, lightener is more highly concentrated on the face framing pieces of the hair, the ends, and the top layer of hair for a more dimensional look. Depending on your base color and your desired end result, your stylist will typically leave out a few sections of the hair and not dye or lighten them. This helps create that soft, dimensional, blended look that balayage is so famous for. This process also makes for a softer grow-in, with less harsh lines of indication as your hair grows in-between appointments.
Balayage is usually executed with bleach, and will typically involve a round of toner or gloss as well. It’s recommended to see your colorist for a consultation first before booking your balayage appointment so that you both have plenty of time to discuss the best fit for you before the bleaching day. Every appointment is a little different based on the current state of your hair and what you’d like your end result to look like, but here’s a general framework for what you can expect at your balayage appointment, which can take anywhere from 3-5 hours.
Your colorist will evaluate your hair: Even if you’ve already come in for a consultation, your colorist will begin by evaluating your hair and inspiration photos (be sure to bring a few that represent your color goals for your hair). They’ll likely ask you questions about how often you heat style, which way you part your hair, how you usually style it, how often you’re committed to returning for touch-ups, and if you’re open to having a trim before deciding on the final color plan for the day.
Sectioning and hand painting your hair: Once you and your colorist have decided on a final color plan together based on your goals and lifestyle, they’ll mix up some lightener and bring it over to the station where you’re seated, you’ll be seated in your chair for 1-2 hours, depending on how much hair you have and how much lighter you’re going. Your colorist will work section by section, panting specifically selected strands from a section of hair and then covering that section with cotton or saran wrap so the lightener doesn’t bleed into unwanted hair sections. The lighter you’re going, the smaller the sections will be and the more strands from each section they will choose to paint. During this period, be prepared to answer questions follow-up questions from your stylist, like what your natural hair texture looks like and if you tend to wear your natural hair texture.
Sitting under the dryer: After 1-2 hours, your colorist will likely have you sit under a dryer to expedite the lightening process (lightener works faster when heat is involved). Lightener starts working on contact, so your hair has been slowly lightening as lightener was applied to each section. For this reason, your colorist might only apply the dryer to the second half of your head (since the lightener had been sitting on the first site of your hair for longer). Or, if you have fragile hair or are going for more subtle highlights, your colorist might skip the dryer altogether and just have you sit in the chair without any heat while the lightener works its magic. Either way, you could be waiting for the lightener to process for anywhere from 15-45 minutes. Your colorist will come by a few times during this time period and check on how your hair is reacting to make sure your strands don’t over-lighten.
Rinsing and applying a protein treatment: Once your stylist decides your strands have lightened to the right shade, you’ll head over to the bowl to be rinsed out. It isn’t uncommon for your stylist’s assistant to do this part, and rest assured that they’re specifically trained to execute these steps to perfection. Because bleach can be harsh on your hair, you’ll likely receive a protein treatment like Olaplex to restore the bonds in your hair.
Applying gloss: While your hair is lightened by the bleach when your stylist hand-paints, chances are it’s not the exact tone you’re looking for. Perhaps your inspiration photos featured a golden blonde, but your base color is naturally more ashy. In this step, your colorist (or their assistant) will apply toner to help blend your natural base and new highlights together and achieve the overall tone you’re going for, be it more golden or more icy. Once a moisture-restoring gloss is applied evenly throughout the hair, it usually has to sit for about 10 minutes. Your colorist will check the after this time frame and confirm if it should be rinsed out or if the formula should sit for a bit longer. Once you’re ready, you’ll be shampooed and conditioned.
Trimming and Blow-drying: Once you’ve received a tone or gloss, you’re ready to be trimmed and blow-dried. If you’re having a significant haircut the same day you’re getting balayage, your stylist will likely trim your hair while it’s dry before lightener is applied so your colorist doesn’t have to waste time lightening hair that’s just going to be cut away. But if you’re just getting a trim, it will take place after your hair is lightened to help seal the color into the hair at your ends. After your trim, watch your new balayage color come to life while you receive your balayage.
The Difference Between Balayage and Ombré Hair Now, balayage and ombré are both common requests for lightened hair, but their meaning is completely different. While balayage is a technique, ombré is a desired effect or outcome.
Ombré, also a french term, means “shaded” or “graduated in tone”. That in mind, balayage could technically be used to achieve the ombré color effect. “When ombré” became a thing, balayage was just a simple answer to make all the ends light “But true balayage, to me, does start closer to the root.” What happens at the roots is one of the main differences between the two outcomes. With the ombre gradient going from typically darker roots to lightened ends, there isn’t much color applied near the roots at all. Ombré almost appears to be perfectly grown out hair color, whereas balayage is used to achieve more of an all-over color from roots to ends.
Balayage can be used to get an ombré effect when painted on the lower half of the hair.” The trick of the matter? Leaving the top half darker And there are other ways to achieve ombré hair, too. Balayage is by no means a requirement to get there. Another frequented technique to getting ombré hair color is by backcombing the hair, painting the ends and protecting the application in foils. Although the ends get “painted”, balayage is traditionally done without the use of foils. “The foils and backcombing technique doesn’t allow you to paint close to the scalp, where with balayage, you can paint almost all the way up to the scalp if desired.”
While both terms refer to lightened hair and an effortlessly natural looking regrowth, the main point of differentiation is the lack of color near the roots that’s found only with ombré.
Balayage and traditional foil highlights are both application techniques that target lighter hair, but have varied results. Highlights are done by finely weaving small, quarter-inch sections of hair with a tail comb and painting bleach onto those selectively woven strands, which are placed inside a piece of foil where it then gets folded up and enclosed in preparation to bake under some sort of heat to help lift and alter the hair’s current state. Balayage, is applied more organically, with a freehand approach and much less precision. “Balayage gives a multidimensional highlight, which can appear more natural because it creates different levels of lightness. Traditional foils gives a more uniform and even finish, creating a single dimensional highlight.
If your ultimate goal is to go from dark to light all over, then traditional foil highlights might be the route your colorist decides to go, largely due to creating that single dimensional, uniform finish. When choosing a technique, it all depends on the client’s hair and what their desired look is. For most high contrast looks we usually use a foil in some sort of way to lock in heat and ensure lightness.