Balayage vs. highlights: which is better?

Your need to know when it comes to the balayage vs highlights

balayage vs highlights

by Elena Angelides |
Posted on

In a phrase famously coined by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag... HAIR. IS. EVERYTHING. And you know what? We couldn’t agree more, Phoebs. Hair is the difference between a good day and a bad day.

So, it’s understandable why making the big decision to dye it is huge. Massive, actually and it’s not one we ever want to go Pete Tong.

As we segue into autumn, the transition between seasons always signals one thing: a fresh new do. Thing is, if you don’t want to commit to block-dying all of your hair into a completely new colour, there are techniques to give your hair a variety of hues.

Balayge or highlights are methods to secure two subtly different looks. Usually, both processes make your hair lighter, but even this can be played around with.

Don’t worry, we’re on hand to tell all about the difference between balayage and highlights.

What is balayage?

Okay so, people often talk about balayage as if it’s ‘the look’, but it’s actually the technique, not the end result.

In French, balayage means the act of sweeping - oh, la, la – and this type of colouring involves dye being swept onto the surface of random sections of hair to add lighter tones. Whether brown or blonde, balayage creates a natural-look, with the gradient becoming softer towards the ends, almost as though it’s been coloured by the sun itself.

Celeb colourist April Pattara told heat, “The beauty of balayage is that it’s bespoke to the client.”

“It can be tailored to what you want and need. It should be a sweeping technique, void of that harsh, dip dye look. Lived in, and low maintenance are your buzz words.”

Brown balayage hair

For balayage on dark hair, take inspo from April’s before and after photo below.

Blonde balayage hair

For balayage on light hair, April’s before and after photo shows us what’s what.

Reverse balayage hair

If you already have really light hair, a reverse balayage adds lowlights or tones that are darker than your actual colour. This method is usually used to add depth to blonde hair as you can see in April’s before and after video that shows the process of a reverse balayage...

heat's lifestyle writer, Darryl White, is team balayage, and has brown hair with blonde balayage hair colour.

She said, “I’ve been a balayage fan for around four years. I have brunette hair, complimented with natural-looking blonde balayage running through it. It doesn’t have that block colour look and you don’t have to spend hours in the hairdresser’s chair either.

“I love how low maintenance it is. It lasts for well over six-to-nine months if treated regularly at home with silver toner to keep those yellow tones at bay. In the summers, it looks lovely with a few beachy curls and during the winter months it vibrant and lifts any cosy outfit.”

What are highlights?

This technique is a more ordered way of adding lighter tones to your hair. To achieve a full head of highlights, the stylist will use foil to lighten the hair by separating out smaller subsections, usually all the way from root to tip.

For a less dramatic version, half a head of highlights involves less of the hair being dyed, with the colour placed around the face for a framing impact and natural colour peeking through. Half a head of highlights is a great hack for covering greys or darker roots too.

In both, the end result is lighter, vertical, strands on a darker base colour. It’s a strong look for any hair colour – brown, blonde, or red – and also suits shorter hair, as there is less length to work with and the colour is applied to the root.

A full head of highlights

Take inspo on how blonde highlights can work on brown hair, and how to werk the bob.

Half a head of highlights

A more subtle look which works to frame the face.

heat writer, Millie Payne, has been loving her half a head of highlights.

She admitted, “I am a natural blonde - one of my mum’s friends even joked that she’d never seen a blonder baby when I was born. But last May, I decided to get half a head of highlights – which only covers the top section of your head – when my roots started to go darker.

“I have not looked back, and I have only required three top-ups since! Not only do the highlights blend effectively with my naturally lighter ends, but they also frame my face and reinvigorate my hair. It isn’t time-consuming and always make you feel brand-new_._”

Dark-brown almost black hair with highlights

Dark-brown almost black hair with lowlights

This follows the same process, but with dye darker than your base colour for a deeper look.

Whats the difference between balayage and highlights?

Firstly, balayage does not use tin foil as foil lightens the hair from top to bottom, whereas traditional highlights require foil.

Balayage tends to begin towards the top or midway down the hair - getting lighter as you go, but highlights always start from the root with colours remaining consistent vertically.

The results achieved vary apart too. If you’re after a more balanced, blended and subtle look, balayage gives a seemingly-natural sun-kissed warmth. The colours are more dimensional and often don’t stray too far from your base colour, which is very much part of the look. Enter, gorgeous, non-uniform chunks of colour.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for big colour shift, highlights create a more pronounced and structured impact, as there’s more of a contrast in colours from your base. It’s also ideal for shorter hair and bobs. Say hello to bold, sleek strands of colour.

In terms of up-keep, balyage is easier for the low-maintence-lovers amongst us (hiya). You can go months without needing a touch-up, as it simply appears your hair gets lighter as it gets longer. For highlights, you will need to maintain it more often, depending on how fast your hair grows, to battle the ‘bad-roots’ faux pas. Although tbh, in recent years, that’s become more of an aesthetic.

Balayage vs highlights


  • No foil, freehand technique

  • Coloured from towards the top or mid-way down the hair until the end

  • Creates a more balanced, blended and subtle look

  • Subtle colour gradient towards ends

  • Lower maintenance

  • Adds depth to hair colour

  • Better for longer hair


  • Foil used

  • Coloured vertically, all the way from root to top

  • Creates a more dramatic shift from your original colour

  • Saturated streaks of colour

  • Higher maintenance, as placing colour on the root is a bigger commitment

  • Frames face

  • Better for shorter hair

How to maintain healthy balayage or highlighted hair?

There’s no two ways about it – dyes can have a dramatic impact on the health and condition of your hair. Gorgeous locks come at a cost.

At heat, we want to make sure your hair is living its best life, so here’s some tricks of the trade to keep it looking A1.

Firstly, bleach is the worst culprit, as some hairdressers might enlist it to achieve the look you’re after. However this can be discussed with your hair stylist, as you might not be in favour of bleaching your hair.

For dark hair that’s been dramatically lightened - Kim K, we see you – good aftercare such as a specialist purple shampoo can eliminate brassiness or yellow tones caused by bleach.

Still, most other hair dyes contain harsh chemicals which impact the hair’s protein and lipids, cause disintergrating to the hair shaft, resulting in fragile, frizzy hair.

For this, there’s a toner – which don’t worry, sounds fancy but is essentially just a shampoo - for every hair colour to help you keep your hair refreshed at home.

As an alternative, you could speak to the hairdresser about using natural dyes, which can be purchased or made at home. This sounds a bit wild, but it’s all safe and eco-friendly too.

In the event of dull, dry and damaged hair post-dying, a hair mask is an amazing way to bring life back into it. Garnier Hair Food Mask, we love you, we see you, we smell you? And it’s only £3.50.

If you want to do things super on the cheap, you can even make at-home masks. We do love a little nip to the pantry for some DIY beauty crafts. Plus, they’re a perfect little treat on self-care Sundays. Talk about TLC.

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