Halo lights, balayage and hair painting: a full guide to every type of highlight

Written by Morgan Fargo

Celebrity hairstylist Tom Smith breaks down every form of highlight. 

Highlights can be a confusing business, can’t they? Canvassing everything from babylights, freelights, halo lights, balayage and hand painting, the plethora of highlighting techniques leaves us with a lot of decisions. Do you prefer colour that travels from root to tip or would you like it to be blended seamlessly along the shaft? Should the slices of colour be natural looking or intentional? Will the colour frame your face or stay concentrated around the middle and ends of each hair? 

To clear things up, we asked celebrity hairstylist Tom Smith to explain the 12 different highlight methods and the overall effect they leave on the hair. If you’re ready, strap in – there are more than you think. 

Traditional highlights

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“Traditional highlights give an even and cohesive lighter effect and can add considerable brightness in one go. It’s great for those who want an even yet multi-tonal blonde colour and don’t mind the maintenance every eight weeks,” says Smith.

“The result incorporates consistent strands of a lighter shade laid evenly from root to tip. It looks timeless and classic without any shadows or contrasting panels. Typically, professional foil is used to isolate a bespoke weave size, tailored to suit your hair type or desired result. Bolder weaves make for a streakier result, whereas finer weaves look more blended and subtle.”

Lowlights

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“Typically, lowlights are done by adding panels of a deeper shade to give dimension and depth to an over built-up colour. It’s useful for making the remaining lighter hair pop and feel brighter. It can also make the colour more low-maintenance by adding darker panels. Lowlights help to add contrast and depth by giving dimension which can help to make hair look thicker and bolder.

“Various techniques can be used including foil, meche, paper, or freehand painting, to add panels of darker colour. These are usually added underneath the outer layers of the hair to keep the result looking expensive.”

Babylights

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“Babylights can be tailored to be lighter or more natural than traditional lights due to the tiny weave size and depending on the number of foils added. They grow out more softly because of how small each weave is and are a great option for difficult hairlines to get a seamless blend.

“The result is a micro-dimensional lighter shade and it’s hard to determine panels of colour. The tiny fine strands of lighter colour blend with the remaining hair and make for an extremely natural and expensive-looking result.

“Foils are used for this technique, too, but the colourist must be meticulous with a micro-fine weave pattern that picks up only a few single strands of hair with each weave.”

Balayage highlights

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“A French word meaning ‘to sweep’, balayage is a great technique for natural sun-kissed looking highlights that grow out in an extremely soft, natural way. The result can be subtle or bold depending on the amount of colour added but the highlights always seamlessly blend in and out, making it hard to tell exactly how the colour has been done.

“By painting onto the hair directly, the highlights are blended and make for a result that appears as if it could be natural – similarly to when the hair lightens naturally in the sun over time. Balayage can be a great introduction to hair colour as it comes with very little maintenance and can be almost undetectable as hair dye when done subtly.

“The lightening product is painted directly onto sections of the hair, applied in a sweeping motion. A paddle or board is used to facilitate saturating the longer parts of the highlights, and occasionally the colour is applied directly onto the hair using the hands and brush alone.”

Ombre highlights

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“Another French word, ombre means ‘shade’, and is used in hairdressing to describe a hair colour that fades smoothly from darker to lighter. This technique requires almost no maintenance as, generally, the natural colour remains near the roots of the hair. This can be a great way for those with naturally dark hair to move towards blonde shades without the high maintenance of a full blonde technique.

“The result can vary from a smooth fade (from very dark to very light) to a subtle lightening of colour towards the ends. The main defining factor between ombre and balayage is that all of the ends are lighter, whereas balayage tends to be more of a highlighted effect.

“Lightening product is applied to the ends of the hair, section by section, using a blending technique similar to balayage. This then fades up into the darker natural hair. No hair is left out and all of the hair ends are made lighter.”

Chunking highlights

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“Also known as chunks, this is a great technique for clients who want to make a statement. The result is eye-catching and striking but can be challenging to maintain due to the boldness of the result.

“Highly contrasting panels or slices of colour are painted onto the hair. Generally, there is quite a stark separation between the two shades but it can also be only one lighter shade added into darker natural hair.

“Chunks can be achieved using foil or freehand painting techniques, depending on the individual case. Larger sections will be taken and old panels of colour are lightened. These can be blended up to the root for a softer look or painted directly up to the scalp for an extra stripy result.”

Dimensional highlights

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“Dimensional highlights play with light and shade to give depth and character to your hair. Generally, lighter or bolder highlights are placed around the face and through the layers, while finer highlights may be placed in the body, leaving your hair with more depth overall.

“The territory of high-end hairstylists, this is an extremely bespoke and tailor-made technique. It’s a great way to enhance the shape of your haircut or style by making certain areas lighter, with some left darker. An experienced stylist can place the colour in the best way to suit your hair texture and style.

“This technique can be done using foil or freehand painting – the key here is changing the size of the weave or slice to make some areas of the hair lighter and leave others darker.”

Halo lights (ring lights)

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“Halo lights, also known as ring lights, are great for those who like to keep their hair mostly natural but enjoy a pop of colour around the face. The maintenance here is pretty low as the colour is only placed around the face and not over the parting.

“This technique gives a lighter face-framing effect by adding highlights closest to the face leaving the rest of the hair darker. It’s a great way of brightening your hair without long and expensive hair appointments.

“This effect can be achieved using foil for a bolder look or freehand painting for a softer, more blended result.”

Freelights

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“Similar to a balayage technique, freehand lightening can give a very soft and fluid blending effect to the hair. Plus, this style usually grows out very naturally which means less maintenance overall. Strands of hair are lightened in a blended way to give panels of colour that can be bolder or finer depending on the desired result.

“Generally, strands are painted by hand using a blending technique. Sometimes sections are isolated in unfolded foil if extra lift is required and sometimes a paddle/board is used to help saturate ends.”

Foil lights

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“Also known as ‘singles’, foil lights are a great technique for textured hair to add peaks of colour where it looks best. No real maintenance is required as the result is quite subtle. Foil lights can be adjusted to be bold or subtle depending on the size and amount of pieces coloured. Generally, thanks to the use of foil, it can be a good technique for brighter, higher contrast strands of colour.”

“Individual strands of hair are painted and then isolated in foil for maximum colour lift. Foil conducts heat to help increase the level of possible lift.”

Hair painting

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“Hair painting is used for softly blended lighter colour with a bold result and a natural grow out. The root area is blended up meaning no harsh lines. The result can be considerably lighter if desired, but it always retains a natural softness due to the blended paint.

“Large slices of colour are painted with low saturation to give an overall lighter effect without any telltale signs of highlight strands.”

Frosting

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“Fresh out the 90s, this technique is also called ‘shoeshine’ and is great for a textural lightening on shorter hairstyles. Lighter on the ends and blended in a slightly random fluid way. It gives quite a soft and choppy look that gives depth and texture leaving the root area darkest.

“Frosting is achieved by hand painting sections using the hands rather than a brush. Focusing on the outer layer of the haircut, this style retains the natural colour nearer the scalp.”

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