Balayage Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know and 10 Gorgeous Examples

March 24, 2023
Balayage Hair 101: Everything You Need to Know and 10 Gorgeous Examples

The popularity of balayage hair seemed to explode out of nowhere, as our Instagram feeds suddenly became inundated with images of dimensional blonde locks featuring ultra-bright, face-framing pieces, all tagged with #balayage. The reason for this trend’s widespread success is clear – balayage is a relatively low-maintenance approach to achieving a lighter hair color, as it preserves your natural base color and often results in softer root growth.

So, what exactly is balayage, and how can you effectively communicate your desire for this look to your colorist? Technically speaking, balayage is a hair coloring technique utilized by your colorist, rather than a specific color itself. If you’re feeling a bit confused, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Below, we’ve enlisted the help of expert colorists Lisa Satorn, Olivia Casanova, and Jordan Heidenwith to provide a comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know.

The Experts

  • Lisa Satorn works as a senior stylist at Nine Zero One salon in Los Angeles, which is frequented by celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Hilary Duff, and Taylor Swift.
  • Olivia Casanova is a trendsetting colorist who works between IGK salons in New York City and Miami.
  • Jordan Heidenwith is recognized as one of Modern Salon’s top 100 colorists to follow and works as a colorist at the Dennis Bartolomei salon in Chicago. He is known for creating natural-looking blonde hair.

What Is Balayage?

Despite common misconceptions, balayage refers to a hair coloring technique rather than a specific color. The term is derived from the French words for “sweep” or “paint”. Balayage hair is typically characterized by brightness around the face, root blending, lighter ends, and an overall effortlessly natural appearance. “Think of it as the cool, undone hair of a surfer girl, as if you just spent a summer at the beach,” explains Cassanova. Balayage is a technique utilized to achieve a natural-looking blend of lightened hair. While it is often associated with achieving blonde hair, the same technique can also be used to create caramel, espresso, or even pastel-colored strands.

Balayage differs from traditional highlights that utilize foils, as it involves applying a lightener directly onto the hair using a brush. “It’s a freehand highlighting technique,” says Satorn. “The sweeping motion creates a soft, multidimensional, and natural-looking highlight.” Colorists utilize brushes to apply vertical sweeps of highlights onto the hair, with strips of cotton or saran wrap placed between each section to prevent any color bleeding or spotting.

Balayage vs. Ombré vs. Foil Highlights

What is Balayage Hair Coloring

Despite its introduction in the 1970s, balayage didn’t become popular in the US until around 2010. “Before balayage, I was still doing a traditional, classic foil look (think circa 2000s; very blonde highlights to the root),” says Cassanova. Although both balayage and traditional foil highlights aim to lighten the hair, the results of these application techniques can vary.

Related: How to Choose Between Partial and Full Highlights for Your Hair

According to Satorn, “Balayage creates different levels of lightness, resulting in a multidimensional highlight that appears more natural. Traditional foils, on the other hand, give a uniform and even finish, producing a single-dimensional highlight.” Heidenwith adds, “When choosing a highlighting technique, it all depends on the client’s hair and desired look. For high-contrast looks, I typically use foils to lock in heat and ensure lightness.”

However, there are more highlighting options available. Ombré, meaning “shaded” or “graduated in tone” in French, is a popular choice for lightened hair. While balayage is used to achieve an all-over color from roots to ends, ombré creates a perfectly grown-out hair color appearance. The color gradient usually transitions from darker roots to lightened ends with little to no color applied near the roots.

The Benefits of Balayage

Looks more natural than traditional highlights: Balayage is a technique that involves painting selected strands and blending them with your natural base, resulting in a softer look compared to traditional foil highlights that typically have more obvious lines of demarcation.

Low-maintenance: The soft application of lightened strokes in balayage creates a natural look without any harsh or blunt lines, making regrowth less obvious. This allows for longer periods between appointments due to the technique’s low-maintenance nature.

Color is less likely to “bleed”: When applying balayage, colorists use a barrier such as cotton or saran wrap between sections to prevent layers of bleach from touching. This technique avoids color bleeding and blotchy dye jobs, which could result from the lightener bleeding. Foils placed too close to each other can cause a “bleed” or a spot of bleach that leaks onto the hair beneath the foil, making it difficult to fix.

Less damage: Balayage involves selectively applying bleach to specific sections of the hair, rather than saturating the entire head of hair like in double-process coloring. This technique uses less bleach, resulting in a lighter look with significantly less damage to the hair.

The Drawbacks of Balayage

Our experts advise that your natural hair color and tone will play a significant role in the outcome of your balayage. Cassanova explains that people with very dark hair can often pull warm tones, such as red or orange, during a balayage treatment. If you prefer cooler tones, balayage may not be the best choice for you as the hair can turn brassy faster than with traditional highlights. Satorn confirms that even a small amount of warmth in your natural hair color can make it challenging to achieve the desired tone with balayage. However, if you like a hint of warmth to complement your highlights and don’t mind more than one appointment to reach your desired lightness, balayage can be a great option.

Is Balayage Safe for Natural Hair?

According to Cassanova, balayage is a gentler option for lightening hair compared to other traditional methods and is particularly beneficial for all hair types, especially those with curly hair who risk losing their natural curl pattern when opting for lighter hair. She further explains that the absence of heat retention in foils during balayage prevents over-processing and damage to the hair.

Satorn states, “I am meticulous in following the hair’s curl pattern and ensure that there is ample negative space between each balayage highlight to preserve dimension.” She assures us that with the appropriate application and formula, balayage can be used on any hair texture without causing damage. Cassanova explains that balayage is an ideal choice for naturally coily hair, as it doesn’t result in striped highlights. She suggests using a bond builder like Olaplex or Uberliss and taking a slow and steady approach to the process.

How to Prepare for Balayage

  1. Bring reference photos: To ensure that your stylist understands your desired result, bring several reference photos. These photos can visually communicate specific details and help everyone agree on the same goal.
  2. Come with clean hair: “I prefer to balayage clean hair to avoid any build-up of products, dirt, or oil that may affect the lifting process,” suggests Satorn.
  3. Use a conditioning treatment beforehand: To minimize damage from lightning, use a bonding treatment like Olaplex No. 3 ($30) or Uberbliss Bond Sustainer ($14.79) at home several weeks before your appointment, advises Cassanova.
  4. Wear your usual hairstyle: Your colorist will paint highlights differently depending on whether you wear your hair curly or straight. Arriving with your hair styled how you would normally wear it helps your colorist better place highlights.
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What to Expect During the Process

Balayage involves a selective approach in which your colorist chooses which sections or strands of hair will receive a lightener. Usually, the face-framing pieces, ends, and top layer of hair have a more concentrated lightener application to achieve a multidimensional effect. Based on your natural hair color and desired outcome, your stylist may decide to leave out a few sections of the hair without lightening or coloring them. This technique helps achieve the signature soft, blended look that balayage is renowned for.

Although every balayage appointment is tailored to the individual, there is a general framework that you can expect to follow during the process. This can take anywhere from three to five hours, depending on the current state of your hair and the desired end result.

Your colorist will evaluate your hair: Before finalizing the color plan for your balayage appointment, your colorist will assess your hair and review any inspirational photos you may have brought in. They may inquire about your hair care routine, such as how often you use heat styling tools, how you part and style your hair and your commitment to touch-up appointments. Additionally, they may ask if you are open to trimming to achieve your desired end result.

Sectioning and hand-painting your hair: After finalizing the color plan, your colorist will mix the lightener and bring it to your station. You can take a break, use the restroom, get a drink, and make sure your phone/book/magazine is within reach since the painting process can take one to two hours depending on the amount of hair and level of lightness you desire. Your colorist will work on your hair section by section, selecting specific strands to be painted and covering each section with cotton or saran wrap to avoid unwanted color bleeding. Generally, smaller sections and more strands will be chosen for lighter results.

Sitting under the dryer: Your colorist may use a dryer to speed up the lightening process, as the lightener starts working immediately upon contact with your hair. Depending on the circumstances, the dryer may only be applied to the second half of your head, as the lightener has already been applied to the first half for a longer period. Alternatively, if you have delicate hair or are aiming for more subtle highlights, the dryer may be skipped entirely and you will simply sit in the chair while the lightener does its job. You can expect to wait anywhere from 15-45 minutes for the lightener to process. Your colorist will check on your hair a few times during this period to ensure that your strands are not over-lightening.

Rinsing and applying a protein treatment: After your colorist determines that your hair has reached the desired level of lightness, you’ll be escorted to the shampoo bowl to have your hair rinsed. It’s common for the colorist’s assistant to perform this step, and you can trust that they are trained to carry out the process with precision. As bleach can be damaging to your hair, your colorist may suggest a protein treatment such as Olaplex to restore the hair’s bonds. This treatment can help improve the overall health and strength of your hair.

Applying gloss: Although the hand-painting technique lightens your hair with bleach, the resulting tone may not exactly match the shade you envisioned. For example, if you want a golden blonde look but your natural base color is ashy, toner can be applied to blend the new highlights and your natural base together and achieve your desired overall tone, whether it’s warmer or cooler. After applying a moisture-restoring gloss throughout your hair, it typically needs to sit for around 10 minutes. Your colorist will assess the color at this point and decide whether to rinse out the formula or let it sit a little longer. Finally, you’ll be shampooed and conditioned to complete the process.

Trimming and blow-drying: After receiving a tone or gloss, it’s time for a trim and blow-dry. If you’re getting a significant haircut along with your balayage, your stylist will most likely trim your hair while it’s dry before applying the lightener. This saves time and effort in lightening hair that will be cut later. However, if you’re just getting a trim, it will take place after your hair is lightened.


Balayage is great for spacing out salon appointments, but there are still some tips to keep in mind between appointments to maintain healthy hair and vibrant color. One suggestion from Heidenwith is to do a gloss or hairline touch-up. “In between appointments, toning can help preserve the desired color tone, while touch-ups around the hairline can help maintain brightness.”

Heidenwith emphasizes the importance of using moisture-rich shampoos and conditioners outside of the salon. He explains that the ends of your hair tend to feel drier faster due to the saturation from the balayage application. To combat this, Heidenwith suggests using hair oil, such as Shu Uemura’s Essence Absolue Nourishing Protective Hair Oil ($69), especially if heat styling is part of your hair care routine. Additionally, he recommends using purple shampoo occasionally to protect your color from becoming too warm. Therefore, you can take steps at home to maintain your color and prevent brassiness.

The Cost

The cost of balayage can vary significantly based on the current condition of your hair and the location of the salon. It is recommended to schedule a consultation with your colorist before booking a balayage appointment. During this consultation, you can discuss with your colorist the frequency of touch-up appointments and their associated costs.

For instance, if you have dark blonde to brown hair, you may only require two “full” services per year, during which your colorist will lighten sections all over your head. Alternatively, you may opt for one “partial” service, where only half of the sections on your head are lightened, if you are willing to tolerate some imperfections, such as brassiness, between appointments. However, if you desire a flawless balayage look year-round, you may need to schedule two full appointments and two partial appointments.

Our Favorite Looks

  1. Warm-Toned Curls: This voluminous look is beautifully complemented by the perfect blend of rich caramel and honey hues, which are further accentuated by the springy curls.
  2. Ultra-Cool: This raven-black base with ashy, silver hues throughout creates a delightfully bold and modern look.
  3. Moment: These lengthy tresses have been hand-painted with a smooth and neutral brown shade, imparting a subtle yet striking brightness. This exemplifies the pinnacle of brown balayage.
  4. Pretty in Plum: The fusion of deep black, rich burgundy, and dark plum tones is stunning. The highlights at the tips of the hair bring lightness and prevent the overall look from appearing heavy.
  5. Blurred Bronde: The natural cool-brown tones are beautifully framed by the honey and golden hues, blending together to create a soft, romantic glow.
  6. Pop of Platinum: If you’re looking for a low-maintenance look, this blonde balayage style is a perfect choice. The combination of colors resembles a cloudy day at the beach, where you can curl up with a good book in a cozy sweater. The overall effect is effortless and natural.
  7. Seamless Drama: The striking contrast between the blonde and dark brown shades in this hair color is reminiscent of the classic cookies and cream combination. This cool-toned hue is a great choice if you have pink, red, or bluish undertones in your skin.

Photo: Pexels/ Engin Akyurt

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Margaud Raynaud is a beauty expert with over 10 years of experience in the industry. She has a passion for sharing her knowledge and tips with others and has a particular interest in skincare and makeup. When she's not writing about health and beauty, Margaud enjoys trying out new products and experimenting with different looks. Follow her blog for expert advice and inspiration for living your best life.

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