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  • Writer's pictureCarly Rae Phelps

What Is The Difference Between Balayage, Foilayage and Highlights?

I know sometimes talking with a hairstylist about what you want to achieve with your appointment can be a bit intimidating. It can feel like we (as hairstylists) are speaking a different language. I mean... is it pronounced bailyaege, boleyage, booleyage, biologeyege. Also, what the heck is a foilayage? Aren't they all highlights?! It's confusing, I get it. In a sense yes all of these things are a type of highlighting. Below I am going to break it down what the differences are and what each of those look like.

Firstly, Balayage (Baa.Lee.Yahj) Is the technique of free-hand painting highlights onto the hair, creating a soft and natural gradation of lightness towards the ends. If you want a true balayage, you're looking for a more subtle difference of lightness vs darkness. Think, more of your natural than lightness. This application is NOT for those icy blondes that are so popular right now. Traditional balayage is warmer and is supposed to mimic those natural highlights the sun gives to beach bums. I've created a collection of pictures that indicate what a true balayage looks like. As you can see in those photos that there is still a lot of depth in the hair, and by that I mean the darker tones. None of them are super cool toned, you can still see warmth in their lightened pieces.

Next up is, foilayage (Foil.Eee.Yahj) is very similar to its cousin balayage. This one may vary depending on which stylist you go to. In my world this is the answer for all you ladies wanting that bright and ashy balayage look. Using foils to incubate the lightener on each section helps the hair to lift lighter which allows us to get it cooler toned. Usually in this case the client would want to see more lightness while still keeping some depth. Sometimes this even requires going in with a "root smudge" or "shadow root" to imitate the depth that may get lost with all the lightening. A root smudge is typically a toner that resembles your natural color (maybe a little cooler) that is applied only at the root. This also ensures that perfect blend. Can you see the difference between these pictures and the ones above?

Finally, for traditional highlights. This technique isn't seen as often these days with the rooty look so popular. This is where lightener is applied to smaller sections throughout the head to create smaller pieces of dimension mixed in with your natural color. This is ideal for someone who is wanting maximum lightness from roots to ends. This option does require a little more maintenance, because the highlights go right up to the root. Whereas with the other two techniques low maintenance is the name of the game. Balayage being the lowest maintenance option, then foilayage, then traditional highlights. As you can see below, there is more lightness than darkness while still maintaining some dimension. Compared to the photos above that still have some areas of more defined darkness.

I hope this translates some of those foreign words, and helps you understand a little about each technique! Keep in mind that any of these techniques can be mixed together as well. The beauty of doing hair is options are endless! If you like the ends on one picture but the roots from another maybe that just means we would use two techniques at the same time. If you have any questions about what to book for when we are able to get back to normal, don't hesitate to shoot me an email at

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