Balayage vs Highlights: The Hair Color Pros Break 'Em Down

Written by Aspen Rae Hogue

The big hair coloring debate: balayage vs highlights? If you’re a ride-or-die full traditional highlight girl, your stylist has most likely tried to transition your highlights to balayage hair highlights. But, if you’re still in the dark about the painting and hair coloring technique, and iffy about whether or not balayage highlights are for you, we’ve got your answers. We went straight to the balayage pros and got the 411 on balayage vs foiled highlights.

Hairstylist to color woman's hair in hair salon close up - stock photo Hairstylist to color woman's hair in hair salon close up.
(Image Source: Getty / rbkomar)

Balayage Versus Highlight Techniques

Ryan Pearl, colorist at New York’s Cutler Salon explains that “traditional foil highlights lighten the hair from the root to the ends while balayage hair highlights allow the hair to be softer or muted at the root, and then gets progressively lighter as it travels through to the end.”

Jessica Gonzalez, colorist at Sally Hershberger Los Angeles adds, “The grow-out is less obvious with balayage highlights, you can go months without touching it up. I feel sometimes traditional highlight foils can look a little pattern and I like a more freestyle.”

Although balayage is known to process without foils, Stylist Nikki Lee from 901 Salon prefers to use both. “I like to use foils when I balayage ‘foliage’ because the foil helps to speed up the process and can lift the colored hair lighter than balayage.”

Foliage is the perfect combination of balayage and traditional foil highlights, Chrissy Rasmussen, owner and stylist at Habit Salon in Arizona tells us about her favorite way of implementing the hair coloring technique. “Right now, I see that clients love and want ashy, platinum, sun-kissed colored hair I feel that I can achieve this look by combining these two methods into foliage. I hand-paint pieces of hair where I want it in a foil. I feel that using a foil can more consistently pull the clients’ hair past the brassy stage.”

The Finished Results

Pearl tells us, “The end result of a ‘foil high’ is a more consistent and pattern-based look, while a balayage treatment will result in a look that is more free-hand and organic.”

If you’re looking to have more of an all-over blonde look, Lee explains, “I have more control when I paint in the foil, and can also control exactly how light or dark I want the blonde to be. The end result for traditional highlights is an overall lighter look. The end result for balayage is a slightly darker root melted into lighter ends, which I love!”

Gonzalez adds, “If you’re more into an overall blonder look or all-over highlights, I would go for the foils because balayage a lot of the time won’t go as blonde as foils.”

How to Choose Which Option Is Best

Lee tells us, “If you’re an effortless beauty or slightly edgy girl, I would choose balayage, having your ends pop brighter. If you are a classic traditional girl, I would do foils, giving you an all-over light look.”

Rasmussen advises keeping your hair type in mind. “The method depends more on the client’s hair. If the hair is virgin, then I feel that balayage is a great option. At Habit Salon, we have 40 to 50 clients a day looking to get rid of the brass since their hair has been processed so many times. For me, the foliage technique is better for achieving the ‘it-look.'”

How to Avoid Damage

Pearl says, “Each process, foiled highlights and balayage, need not result in damaged hair as long as the colorist stays aware of the processing time required to maintain the healthy condition of the hair and the desired end result.”

Lee explains the possible overlap of previously lightened hair: “When you do traditional highlights you are generally only lightening the new growth, but when you balayage you continue to lighten the already-lightened hair so it is more likely to become damaged.”

Either hair care technique can lift the hair with minimal damage; Pearl adds, “That’s why it is critically important to see a professional colorist, someone that can guide you safely to beautiful hair color that doesn’t leave your hair damaged.”


Lee says, “For traditional highlights, clients tend to come back between six to eight weeks, but when balayage is done a client can go anywhere between three to four months.” Gonzalez tells us, “With balayage, you can go anywhere from two to six months without touching up. The longer you wait, the more of the ombré look you will be creating, but if done correctly the grow-out should be seamless.”

Pearl suggests getting yourself on a routine schedule for any coloring service. “Whenever you get your hair colored, it makes good sense to put yourself on a three-month maintenance schedule. The length of the schedule can vary, of course, depending on how much of a “natural hair color look” you want. If the look that interests you is more “un-natural” than the natural hair color, your hair will require significantly more maintenance and hair care,” he tells us.

Now that you know the difference between balayage and highlights, discover the difference between balyage and ombré HERE!