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What Is Balayage? An Expert Explains This Hand-Painted Highlight Technique

photo of stylist applying balayage color on woman's hair

Balayage has taken over the world of hair styling. Everywhere you look, on tabloids or just across the desk at your coworker, you’ll see yet another head of beautifully multidimensional color. All hype aside, what is balayage? It seems like everyone has it, but no one can explain it.

Whether you’re a hair color veteran or new to the salon lifestyle, it can be challenging to understand what sets balayage apart from foil highlights or a dip dye. That’s why it’s so crucial to do your research before contacting a colorist.

We tapped Nancy Braun, L'Oréal Professionnel brand ambassador and colorist, to break down the nuts and bolts of the balayage technique. No more secretly searching for hair terms online when your stylist walks away—read on to learn everything you need to know about this timeless look.

What is balayage?

Balayage is hair coloring technique that involves creating subtle, natural-looking highlights and lowlights. It’s also possible to customize the process to contour your facial shape or create the illusion of thicker hair.

Although balayage made its way onto popular social pages within the last few years, the technique actually dates back to the 1960s. Beginning in France, top tier colorists experimented with hand-painted highlights that looked considerably less artificial than the colors in vogue at that time. By the ‘80s, balayage had grown and spread across country lines to the United States. If you look carefully, you’re sure to spot those trademark highlights on superstar models throughout the decades.

According to Braun, the true appeal of balayage lies in the way it grows out between appointments. Foil highlights often leave wearers with demarcation lines where the bright streak ends and the root begins. That’s not so with balayage.

“The way it grows out from the root area is much more graceful than a foil or highlighting back in the day when they used to pull hair through a frosting cap. I find that the look of it duplicates nature much more,” she says.

Since balayage was a secret of the stars for so long, it may seem confusing that the technique is readily available today. It all comes down to education, in Braun’s estimation. Many colorists were afraid to paint their clients’ hair, so only the celebrities with access to the best professionals had access to the technique. These days, color certification programs are much more widespread—meaning your local colorist has access to plenty of training.

What’s the best way to try balayage?

As with all hair colors, there are two crucial steps that come before you ever sit down in the salon chair: choosing a colorist and compiling inspiration for your new ‘do. Find a trusted professional by scrolling through social media profiles, identifying the ones who regularly engage with their clients and post colors similar to the one you want.

Once you’ve locked in your appointment, bookmark images that look like the hair color you’re imagining. It may seem like describing the look will do the trick, but your version of honey balayage can be miles away from what your colorist is picturing. Bring photos and you won’t have to risk miscommunication.

When it comes to achieving your dream shade, it’s also important to remember that your hair color constantly shifts as the light changes.

“I think sometimes women see a picture and they just see the hair set in one way,” Braun says. “The hair’s moving constantly so one day it may look a little brighter—it depends on where you part it. You might have a little more contrast another day.”

Trust your colorist’s vision for your balayage and you’ll be please at the way it turns out. While many women are afraid of their hair looking too dark, those deep roots help create the contrast that makes balayage so remarkable.

One last thing to keep in mind: You’ll have to separate trends from the technique of balayage. Braun sees many clients and even some professionals who get a little confused about the difference.

“A lot of hairdressers and a lot of clients don’t really understand the difference between ombre and balayage. They think it’s the same thing, but ombre itself is a trend and balayage is actually the technique,” she explains.

Who should try balayage?

If you’re a man or woman with without over-processed hair, balayage is for you. In many cases, it may be less damaging for your hair than a full head of color. Because balayage grows in more naturally, you’ll require fewer salon sessions to keep your hair looking beautiful.

As with all hair services, you’ll want to invest in salon quality products to keep your hair looking beautiful. Not sure how to build a product routine? Your favorite stylist can provide customized recommendations as needed.

Now that you’re educated, it’s time to try balayage for yourself. Don’t be surprised if you’re able to school your colorist on the technique.

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