Highlights: The techniques you need to know

Amra | 23 April 2016

From balayage to babylights and beyond, here are the techniques you should know about before brightening up those locks.

Highlights have certainly come a long way, and if the runways and celebrities have taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that this colouring technique is here to stay. The right highlights can give you anything from a subtle sunkissed look, to a more dramatic multi-dimensional effect. But which is which? With new techniques constantly being introduced, the difference between each highlighting method becomes more and more subtle. Not to mention distinguishing the effects can be a trickier task than you might imagine. So to make things easier, we’ve broken it down to give you a brief overview of each technique we think you should know about. From balayage to babylights and beyond, discover the perfect highlighting technique for you.

Highlights: The techniques

Blonde long hair highlights
Classic highlights and lowlights. Credit: indigitalimages.com

Highlights and lowlights

If you dream of having multiple gleaming shades of gold rippling through your hair like Sienna Miller, or even rich chocolatey ones like Olivia Palermo, then highlights or lowlights are what you need to ask your colourist for.

Highlighting involves the colouring or lightening of selected strands of hair, while also separating and leaving out sections that will remain uncoloured. The finished look should leave a distinguishable sunkissed sheen in your hair, while also adding a textural effect to help lift your natural tones. This method works best for those with fine or straight hair of varying lengths.

Lowlights are created using the same techniques as highlights, but instead of lifting hair with a lighter tone, lowlights work to darken the strands. This cool yet dramatic contrast adds depth and dimension to your hair colour, making it a brilliant option for those who want the illusion of thicker-looking locks.

babylights blonde highlights technique
It’s all about placement with babylights. Credit: indigitalimages.com


We’re sure you’ve noticed that babylights – a term coined by London-based hair colourist Jack Howard – are currently having somewhat of a moment. The main difference between babylights and highlights is placement. While highlights are applied right from the roots down, this technique leaves room for natural hair to show through. Favoured by a handful of celebrities and models, babylights is a process which pays micro attention to selected areas, giving a fresh and shiny but barely-there effect. Each strand of hair chosen is sectioned into two in halves, and then delicately painted. The resulting look should be subtle, but still deliver a high impact. This technique works well for every hair type, length and colour – apart from very dark brown.

Blonde balayage highlights

Balayage and layage

Balayage is another method of highlights you should have on your radar. Developed in France in the ’70s, this technique requires colourists to directly paint colour onto random sections of your hair. Balayage is less symmetrical and structured than regular highlights, because it works to mimic the natural highlights you would get after spending time in the sun, resulting in a more delicate finish. While regular highlights and babylights use foil for precise application, balayage is applied freehand.

The best thing about this technique is that it’s totally bespoke. Depending on the desired effects, you can opt for stronger, dramatic highlights, or something much softer and more natural. This technique works well for those who have medium to thick hair. Balayage can be done on pixie crops, but has greater impact on those who have mid-length to long hair.

A slight variation on balayage, layage has been hailed as the most flattering technique to hit the market in recent years. This form of highlights gives tresses a gradient effect that’s smoother and more fluid-looking. The great thing about this technique is that it creates a strobing effect that helps to brighten hair, lending a soft, youthful finish.

dark brown ombre hair highlights technique
Brunette? Why not try ombre or sombre? Credit: indigitalimages.com

Ombre & Sombre

Drew Barrymore, Alexa Chung and Rachel Bilson all have one thing in common: their sexy and sophisticated ombre highlights. Ombre is a French term meaning ‘shaded’ and is a technique that features a stark dark-to-light fade, beginning from the roots and gradually getting lighter towards the ends of the hair. This look is designed to be slightly uneven to achieve a more natural effect. Ombre works well on any hair type and length, but is especially suited to brunettes, where the effect can be more striking.

Sombre, as the name suggests, is a subtler version of ombre, but instead of creating a dramatic contrast, the desired effect here is even more natural. So, if you want something softer-looking and less drastic, sombre is the one for you. And bonus? Sombré really can work for all.

So, now you know which highlights technique to have on your radar, you can be well prepped for your next salon visit.