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Balayage Vs. Highlights Vs. Ombre: What's The Difference?

Balayage vs highlights vs ombre

From dip dye to babylights, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest trendy hair color techniques. While some are just fads, there are a few that have managed to stand the test of time. Case in point: balayage, highlights, and ombre—three hair color techniques that are consistently in style.

Everywhere you look someone is slaying balayage, highlights, or ombre locks and sometimes the looks begin to blend together. Your fave celeb’s dark brown hair looks like it’s been highlighted—but it could be balayage...or is it actually ombre?

If you’re not sure how to tell the difference when it comes to balayage vs. highlights vs. ombre, you’re not alone. Thankfully, L’Oréal Professionnel brand ambassador and stylist Min Kim is here to put an end to that. She’s breaking down what defines each technique, the major difference between the three, and who should opt for which color service. 

What’s the difference between balayage, highlights, and ombre?

Kim says the major difference between each technique is how the stylist applies the color to achieve the desired final look.

"The major difference between balayage and highlights is the softness in the regrowth. The dark or negative space within a balayage application really allows the highlight to shine and pop—you need the dark to see the light—and saturation lives on the mid-length and ends vs. highlights where the entire section [is saturated] in a foil."

The balayage technique is often combined with ombre, but there are still a few subtle differences between the application techniques. 

“Both [looks] can be achieved with balayage, but an ombre has less dimension through the mids and ends versus a traditional balayage where dimension plays throughout the hair,” Kim says.

Highlights and ombre have the least in common as highlights are applied from roots to ends, while ombre focuses on lightening your strands from the mid-length to the ends.

Now that you understand the differences between each technique, you need to know what they are. Lucky for you, Kim says their defining traits are fairly easy to identify.

What is balayage? 

Balayage seems to be the most loved technique of the moment, and for a good reason. Kim says balayage is suitable for all skin tones, hair colors, and textures, making it universally flattering on nearly everyone. With balayage, you also have the added benefit of being able to contour your face shape and highlight facial features. If that sounds appealing, balayage may be perfect for you.

“Balayage is a freehand method of sweeping lightener onto the surface of the hair,” Kim explains. “It’s a vertical application which keeps the highlights from disappearing through the mids/ends and allows for a graceful grow-out.” 

5 Balayage Ideas To Try Now

If you’re searching for a balayage style to inspire your next salon appointment, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite balayage looks this year. 

Golden Balayage

When you think of balayage, golden blonde balayage is usually the first hue that comes to mind and for a good reason—it looks good on just about everyone.

Copper Balayage

If you’re a natural redhead looking to bring dimension to your color, consider this copper balayage. The lightened ends will bring new life to your style while allowing your natural color to shine through at your roots. 

Silver Balayage

If you’re absolutely obsessed with silver hair but aren’t ready to go completely metallic, consider silver balayage. 

Auburn Balayage

In search of the perfect spring color but don't want to give up your precious dark strands? Look no further. This auburn balayage is the perfect way to transition your hair from winter to spring.

Pink Balayage

Balayage is universally loved in part because it’s such a low maintenance technique to maintain. If you’re prepared for a balayage look that requires a bit more work, consider this on-trend pink balayage. Pink is a notoriously hard color to maintain, but those willing to do the work will be rewarded with the most photogenic hair ever.

What are highlights? 

Highlights also look great on everyone, but the final look is a bit different from balayage.

“Highlights are best for those who want a more blended overall result with less dimension,” Kim explains. “It’s also suitable for everyone but especially best for clients with finer textures as it gives body to limp strands. With traditional highlights, hair is saturated within a foil and lends itself to a more visible regrowth.”

5 Highlight Ideas To Try Now

If highlights are more your taste, look no further than these on-trend styles. 

Red Highlights

When you think of highlights, the first color that comes to mind is usually blonde. As much as we love blonde highlights (we’ll get to those in just a minute), your highlights can be any color you want—even red!

Rainbow Highlights

Why settle on one color when you can have them all? Rainbow highlights are a fun and creative way to display all of your favorite hair colors without completely changing up your hair color. 

Honey Highlights

If you’re looking to add warmth around your face, consider some strategically placed honey highlights. These face-framing highlights will make you look like you just came back from vacation, even as you sit at a desk. 

Blonde Highlights

If you’ve always imagined going blonde but can’t wrap your mind around parting with your precious brunette locks, opt for blonde highlights instead. 

Caramel Highlights

These candy-inspired highlights are a great way to bring depth and dimension to very dark hair.

What is ombre?


Kim says ombre hair tends to have the least dimension. However, it can be customized to be soft and subtle or edgy and dramatic. The choice is yours. “Ombre is a technique where the color transitions from dark to light, from roots to ends,” the stylist explains. 

5 Ombre Ideas To Try Now

If you’re looking for a more dramatic style, consider these ombre looks.

Black To Honey Ombre

If you love the look of ombre but want a subtle style, consider black to honey ombre. These colors seamlessly melt into each other for a universally flattering style.

Black To Red Ombre

Go bold with this black to red ombre that will turn heads everywhere you go. 

Blue Ombre

People often use ombre as a way to hold on to their natural hair color, but it looks absolutely stunning in allover fantasy shades. This gradient blue will look dazzling all year long. 

Hot Pink To Orange Ombre

If you love sunsets, you won’t be able to get enough of this stunning hot pink to orange ombre.

Black To Multi-Colored Ombre
If you’re a bit indecisive, this multi-colored ombre is perfect for you. All you have to do is pick your favorite colors and let your colorist get to work.

Is balayage better than highlights?

Whether or not balayage is better than highlights depends on your personal preference. They’re both great ways to update your look and add dimension and movement to your color. If you’re looking for the lowest maintenance option, go with highlights. If you’re willing to dedicate a little more time to caring for your color, consider balayage.

Is balayage more expensive than highlights?

While prices will vary from salon to salon, balayage is typically more expensive than highlights. Balayage can be used to create a total hair transformation, but highlights just add a pop of color and dimension to your mane which requires much less time, training, and dye.

Can you get balayage if you have highlights?

Yes! You can get balayage if you have highlights. The beauty of balayage is that it is all about blending. Your colorist will work with you to ensure your new color perfectly blends with your existing highlights.

What is the maintenance like for balayage, ombre, and highlights?

Caring for balayage, highlights, and ombre may be the same, but there is a slight difference in how often you should expect to head back to the salon. Because balayage is hand-painted on in a way that avoids harsh lines, it is a very low maintenance color technique. Kim says that clients who choose balayage usually head back to the salon every three months for a touch-up. 

When you combine balayage with ombre, your color requires even less maintenance as the balayage seamlessly blends with the ombre. When your hair is properly cared for, Kim says you can often go longer than three months in between touch-ups. If your ombre has a more prominent line of demarcation, you may need to head back to the salon every four to six weeks for a touchup. 

Highlights are the most high maintenance option because the color runs from your roots to your ends, making your natural color very visible as your hair begins to grow out. If you want to keep your highlights in tip-top shape, expect to head back to the salon every six weeks for a touchup. 

Depending on your hair history, desired final look, and how much time you’re willing to commit to maintaining your ‘do, the three techniques can be combined or mixed and matched for a completely custom final look.

Now that you know the difference between balayage, highlights, and ombre, you’re equipped with all the knowledge you need to pick a new flawless color!

Interested in personalized advice about the best color service for your hair? Use our salon locator to book an appointment with a stylist near you.

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