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Sun-Kissed: How To Get Natural-Looking Highlights

woman with side swept curly blonde hair

Everyone wants perfect hair. It’s a pipe dream, one that comes with visions of thick, full waves and color that’s so beautiful it’s practically edible. Imagining the perfect shade is an entertaining hobby, but many of our friends, acquaintances, and family can attest that going through with the hair color appointment is a different story.

Dreams aside, the real version of your dream color is usually far from anything even resembling natural highlights. It’s brassy and streaky, all wrong for your lifestyle and skin tone. Ladies, life is too short for bad hair color. We’re over it.

To help remedy the problem and ensure you’re spending money on the most natural, flattering color, we tracked down George Papanikolas, Matrix Celebrity Stylist. He’s known around the world for warm, beautiful hair colors that look sun-brightened and laidback. Instead of stripy or obvious highlights, his work is so subtle you’d never noticed the variation of your ash blonde or dark brown hair  color didn’t happen naturally.

If you’re wondering how to take your highlights from “high school prom” to “beach babe,” stick around. Papanikolas is about to lay down some undeniable truths about getting flattering highlights.

Mimic the natural highlights you had as a child.

If you’re anything like us, you probably have at least one female relative who regularly visits the hair salon to have her stylist recreate the color she had as a teenager. This isn’t some flashy neon ‘do, just an attempt at restoring luster and covering up the grays.

Think of that color technique when it comes to natural-looking highlights. According to Papanikolas, the best hair color is the kind that mimics the way your hair looked as a child. Experts affectionately refer to these extremely subtle streaks as “babylights.”

The trick is remembering that more is not always better when it comes to hair color.

Stick to subtle, and you’ll be just fine.

Contouring isn’t just for your face anymore.

The key to highlights that look as if you’ve had them your whole life is an understanding of the way color can create the illusion of depth. For Papanikolas, that means hair color that’s darkest at its root to build dimension.

“Staying within two shades [of the base color] at the root area looks the softest and most natural, and no more than four shades lighter at the ends keeps the contrast soft and blended,” he explains.

Once you’re set on dark pieces, it’s time for the highlights. Papanikolas recommends keeping your bright streaks to the places on the head that are exposed to light the most.

“Highlights should only accent the hair, and focus on where the sun would naturally hit it,” Papanikolas says. “[They] naturally happen in three main areas—face frame, natural part, and ends.”

This technique mimics the way you might apply highlighter the highest points of your face to create a focal point while brushing dark powder under your cheekbones to build shadows. It’s contouring for your hair, and it involves way less work than the makeup kind. That’s a relief.

Stick to a color that’s close to your base.

If you lived through the early ‘00s, you’ll surely remember a full decade of tiger stripe highlights. Pop stars with stringy extensions wore platinum streaks in black hair. Meanwhile, every middle schooler in the United States tried to convince her parents to let her do the same.

Thankfully, the era of bad highlights is almost over. That’s because colorists like Papanikolas have pioneered the art of flattering, subtle color.

“Highlights can be done on all hair colors, but not all base colors can have the same highlights,” he explains. “Red hair can't be approached the same way you approach a natural dark blonde. For red and brunettes, you want their base color to be the dominant majority, with the highlights as the soft accents.”

And another thing: Although most stylists will talk about warm and cool tones until you’re exhausted, Papanikolas recommends not taking your accent pieces too far one way or another.

“Most people look best in neutral tones,” he says. “[They’re] universally flattering.”

As with every rule, there are a few exceptions. Papanikolas likes to see slightly cool-toned highlights on redheads, and very fair-skinned ladies can handle a warm-tinted shade. Other than that, stick to a middle ground.

Choose your highlighting technique carefully.

You’ve taken your time choosing a flattering highlight color. It may seem as if your only task now is to sit back and let your colorist take the reins, but that’s not the case. Even the most precise shade doesn’t matter if it’s not applied with the right technique.

Services like balayage (hand-painted color designed to make the transition between base and highlight shade look extra subtle) and ombre (another derivation of painted highlights) were developed to give customers a shot at natural-looking color.

According to Papanikolas, however, the key to beautiful hair isn’t just the method of application your colorist uses. It’s their dedication to keeping it subtle that matters.

“Foil, freehand balayage, and ombre techniques can all look natural if done properly,” he says.


Communication is everything.

The golden rule of hair color is making sure your colorist understands exactly what you want before ever sitting down in the chair. The consultation period most salons require isn’t just a formality. Your professional wants to know what kind of hair maintenance you’re willing to do, what shades you like, and what your favorite celebrity’s hair color is. (We’re mostly kidding on that last one.)

Do your research to find a stylist with experience applying the kind of highlights you’d like on clients with similar hair colors to yours. Check social media for photographic evidence of their previous work. Finally, download a few inspirational images to help your colorist understand what you want.

With a lot of skill, several of Papanikolas’ best tips, and a little luck, you’ll get your best highlights yet.

For more expert advice, Use our salon locator to book an appointment at a salon near you.


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