Everything you need to know about balayage
It’s French and it’s luxurious - in some ways there’s little wonder balayage has maintained its popularity for so long. This personalised, paint-on technique can be used to create just about any look imaginable, from barely-there sunkissed highlights to a much more dramatic change.
Whichever way you go, it’ll be soft and graduated, rather than chunky and harsh. Think Made in Chelsea rather than Jersey Shore. It’s a bit fancy, but then, so are you, right?
So if that all sounds good, and you’re considering lightening up via a spot of balayage, read on. We’ve got everything you need to know pre-appointment.
What is balayage and how is it done?
First up, the name itself: balayage is a French word meaning to sweep or paint. Makes sense when you consider that what sets technique apart is its bespoke, just-for-you nature.
“It’s a freehand hair colouring technique that gives a really blended natural look with no harsh or obvious regrowth lines,” as celebrity hairdresser Richard Ward told Marie Claire (1).
In the hands of a skilled colourist, balayage allows for a more subtle, lived-in colour. If you’re keen to avoid chunky, 90s-style highlights, this could be the service for you.
Essentially what you can expect is to talk through your desired look with your stylist (bring pictures), who will tell you how many appointments it might take to get you there. Now’s the time to ask questions - everyone’s hair is different, and you want to know what to expect.
With that out of the way, it’s time to colour. Every stylist has their own preferred method, so exactly what happens next will depend on who you go to. If you’ve ever seen someone in the salon with their hair teased up high getting colour put on, they were likely getting a balayage. That whole process is one way of making sure the colour doesn’t end up too blocky.
“You can expect to have individual strands coloured with a brush and a backing board,” Sydney hairdresser Rose Young told Vogue. “Some colourists like to separate their sections with cotton wool or foil, others tease the hair in sections first then freehand colour the ends.” (2)
Some sections won’t be bleached at all, and others won’t get the full dose, which is how you end up with that soft, lovely variation of tones. It’s all beginning to make sense, right?
The short version is that balayage involves bleach being painted onto the hair by hand, with some sections receiving more attention and others being just about left alone. Once that has processed and been rinsed out, your hair will typically be toned over at the basin. This is where any fun colours will be added in. If you’re wanting to go super ashy, or warm and caramelly, toner is how that magic happens.
Give it to me fast: What is balayage?
- A freehand bleach application technique for lightening hair
- Done without foils
- Gives a natural, lived-in result without harsh lines
How long does balayage take to do?
This depends entirely on what you’re getting done, how long your hair is, and how much of it you have.
If you’ve got long, thick hair, you’re in it for the long haul - up to around three hours. If you’re at the other end of the scale, though, you might be looking at as little as 45 minutes. Don’t forget, though, there is processing time to consider. A good portion of that time will be you relaxing while the bleach works its magic on your hair.
There’s a massive upside, though. Because balayage grows out so beautifully, you might not need to head back for your next appointment for a while, so things can balance out in terms of both appointment time and cost. It’s an investment piece 💇♀️.
Balayage vs highlights
The difference between balayage and highlights is a question of technique. While both involve lightening things up, highlights tend to start right at the scalp, whereas balayage will generally be applied through the middle and ends of your hair.
Highlights are done with foils, and like we were saying above, balayage is typically done without. Really, it comes down to what look you’re after - highlights are more structured, and will need more maintenance as your hair grows out, whereas balayage offers a more laid-back vibe.
When in doubt, speak to your stylist. These hair senseis know what they’re talking about.
Low maintenance highlights for dark hair
If you’re the sort of person who’s always trying to stretch a haircut for another month (hello, yes, us too) then balayage has your name all over it. Because the colour doesn’t start right at your scalp, you’re not at risk of a definite line of regrowth. Blessings 💃🏻.
For those of us with dark hair, the same applies. If you’re wanting to go significantly lighter, you might have to go back once or twice to get the blonde ends your heart desires, but once they’re in place, you can go a lot longer between appointments. That’s a strong yes from us.
How to go from highlights to balayage
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? It’s absolutely possible to go from highlights to a softer balayage look, but you will need to let your regrowth shine for a little while first. We’re sorry. Be patient! You might be looking at two or three months.
Once you’ve got a good few centimetres of virgin hair, make yourself an appointment and have a word with the colour genius of your choosing. Their exact plan of action will vary, of course, but you can expect a combination of bleach and lowlights and maybe even a slightly darker colour applied to your roots (3).
The process is halfway between an art and a science, but you’ll have hair worthy of a Beyonce-style wind tunnel before you know it.
Is balayage bad for your hair?
Look, no one’s going to tell you that lightening your hair is the absolute best thing you can do for it, condition-wise. But if you take care of your new colour, you’ll be sweet ⭐️.
Here are a few bright ideas for caring for bleached hair:
- Get regular trims, as lightened hair can split more easily
- Choose your shampoo and conditioner carefully - your stylist will be happy to help on this front
- Don’t blow it (that is, keep your heat styling to a minimum, and use the heat protectant your stylist recommends when you do opt in)
- Mask, mask, mask, whether it’s for protein or hydration or both
- Consider a treatment - Olaplex is a biggie here, both in salon and take-home
Good vs bad balayage
You’ll know a bad balayage when you see it (fingers crossed not on your own head). The telltale signs are a harsh step from dark roots to bleached lengths, chunky blonde pieces, and a general lack of dimension. No bueno.
Here’s a bit of a before and after for you:
By contrast, a good balayage will look so varied and lovely you might believe it just grew out of your head that way. We’re looking for a seamless colour blend, with no obvious gradations or lines. When it comes to making sure you’re in this latter camp, communication is key. Bring photos, and talk to your hairdresser. That Gisele Bundchen hair will be yours.
Balayage in pictures
The thing is, this is all a bit theoretical. You want to see what we’re talking about, right?
Please, scroll on for pictures of just about every kind of balayage that exists, from classic to delightfully unexpected.
A timeless classic, this balayage goes from medium brown to blonde. This is probably what you first think of when you hear the word balayage.
Blonde balayage before and after
It’s all about the journey, right?
Of course, balayage isn’t just for blondes, as this delicious chocolate-hued look demonstrates.
If those warm tones aren’t singing to you, though, there’s this ashy option which is quite a delight.
Balayage on black hair
If your black hair is feeling a little heavy, and you’re after some dimension, here’s a brilliant example to take in.
We did say delightfully unexpected. How good is this? The answer is very good.
Balayage red hair
Excuse us while we drool over this blood-orange red balayage masterpiece. Goals.
However, if that’s all a bit full-on, here’s a more achievable (but still gorgeous) red balayage example.
So you’re reading all this and you’re thinking, ‘Well yes, I’m interested, but I don’t know about a full-head commitment.’ We feel you. We’re indecisive too. Enter: partial balayage.
What is partial balayage?
It’s right there in the name - partial balayage refers to that same easygoing, freehand colour we’ve been talking about, but only applied to certain sections of your hair. It’s a particularly good option if you’ve never coloured your hair before, and you’re not sure about diving in head first, or if you’re looking for a nice subtle result.
Typically, you’ll end up with lightened pieces in the top layer of your hair, or just around your face. Because of this, it can be super flattering. Think of it as an instant selfie mode.
Since less of your hair is coloured, it also requires less in the way of upkeep, and will minimise any potential damage. For those who seek an understated, but still lovely, look, partial balayage is the way to go.
How much is a partial balayage?
The good thing about a partial balayage is that it can add a lot of dimension to your hair, without quite the same price tag as a full balayage. How much you’ll end up paying for your partial balayage depends on where you go, who you see, and how much hair you have, but as a rough guide you can expect prices to start around $130-150, whereas a full head might start more around the $170 mark. Feel free to ask for a specific quote, though. Knowledge is power, friends.
Half-head balayage vs full head
This is really along the same lines as our discussion above on partial balayage versus the whole nine yards. If you’re after a more dramatic, eye-catching result, go full head, but if subtlety and a ‘who me’ aesthetic speaks to you, go for a half-head balayage.
For comparison, here’s a full head of balayage…
And here’s a half balayage:
It’ll be more affordable and gentler on your hair, which is absolutely ideal. However, if you’re after a really big change, you are best opting for a full head.
If you seek a natural look for your balayage, emphasise that with your stylist when you’re talking through your game plan. You might be a perfect candidate for a partial balayage - which has the happy knock-on effect of being quite a bit cheaper, too. Balayage is the perfect technique for creating a natural, lived-in colour, so you’re very much on the right track.
How much should I pay for balayage?
Up front, balayage has the potential to hit the upper end of the price scale for hair colouring. However, because you’re unlikely to need to be in the salon as often, it does end up evening out - you’ll pay a little more for each appointment, but you won’t need as many of them. For shorter hair, you might be looking at $150 to $200, with longer, thicker-haired beauties paying a little more than that. Talk it through with your stylist. Rest assured that the ‘Yes, my hair is expensive, and I am a woman of the world’ feeling makes it worth it.
Balayage on long hair
It’s a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, because the cost of your long hair balayage will depend on how much lighter you want to go, whether you’re getting a cut as well, and the density of your hair. However, most salons start their engines for a full head of balayage on long hair at around the $250 mark. If you get it for less than that, you’re doing pretty well.
Balayage on short hair
When it comes to balayage, the association tends to be with long, flowy mermaid hair. However, we’d invite you to have another quick look at the photos above - balayage on a bob can look fantastic. The other advantage to a balayage on short hair is you’re unlikely to pay as much for your refresh. Think around the $150-200 mark. However, of course, chat to your stylist before they get started for a more exact quote.