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Hair Color 101: Balayage vs Ombre

By: Sarah Kester

With all the different terms that are out there to describe hair color treatments — balayage, ombre, even sombre — it can sometimes feel like your hairstylist is speaking a different language. To make up for this, you might flash them a picture you found on Pinterest of the look you want.

While this can certainly be useful since blonde, gold, and natural colors can all mean different things to stylists, it’s better to know exactly what you want. The best thing you can do? Learning the ins and outs of the hair color trends that dictate which color we’re going to eventually rock.

To help with this, we spoke with four different hair color experts and asked about their take on the current trends, the differences and similarities of each, along with how to care for these new looks. 

What Is Balayage?

“Balayage is a technique for highlighting the hair that originates from the French term ‘to sweep,’” Kelsey Haywood Lucas, the beauty director at Girls’ Life and author of Best Hair Book Ever!, explains to Lively. “It’s almost like sculpting or contouring for your hair. It’s done freehand, which means that there are no foils being used. Though some stylists will use things like cotton or plastic wrap to keep bleach from touching other sections of hair.”

Balayage is a great for those who are looking for a low-maintenance treatment since the subtle, natural-looking color won’t grow out into harsh lines.

What Is Ombre?

When asked about ombre, Samantha Denis, a hair color expert/colorist and founder of allyoos, a clean hair care brand, asks, “Are people still getting ombre?” Not surprisingly, this is a normal reaction to the hair trend that disappeared just as quickly as it arrived on the scene.

Ombre hair is easy to spot, since it’s defined by the transition of a dark root color to lighter ends. This, however, does make it quite easy to mess up — especially when done at home without the help of a hair care professional since it can lead to very harsh lines.

RELATED: How Often Should You Wash Your Hair?

ombre vs balayage

Ombre vs Sombre: What’s the Difference?

There are currently two different variations of ombre hair: The reverse ombre and sombre. The reverse ombre is exactly what it sounds like; it's an ombre in reverse that has the hair lighter on top and gets gradually darker towards the ends.

Sombre, on the other hand, is essentially a softer version of an ombre. “The fade is subtle since the color on top is not drastically darker than the bottom,” explains Michelle Farley, a hair coach, to Lively.

What About Highlights?

Highlights lighten different sections of the hair — usually with a bright color, such as blonde. “Depending on where you want your hair to be lighter or brighter, your colorist would section and apply lightener to the hair and secure it from bleeding with foils or meche strips,” explains Farley. It’s these foils and meche strips that save you extra time in the salon chair since the added heat from wrapping them around the hair causes the color to lift faster. 

Highlights are a good choice for those who are more experienced with dyeing their hair, since they require more trips to the salon for touch-ups. “Someone's regrowth will definitely be more noticeable, as the line of demarcation between the grown-out highlights and regrowth is definitely more prominent,” explains Denis. “Highlights can be less natural looking because of this.”

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Balayage vs Ombre Hair: What Are the Differences & Similarities?

“Balayage is a diffused, painted highlight that looks very natural, whereas ombre is a transition from dark to light,” says Esposito. Similarities between balayage and ombre would appear if you were to combine the two techniques, she adds. Out of the three different hair color treatments — balayage, ombre, and highlights — balayage is a universal look that’s soft and allows colorists to get creative. Balayage has even been described as an art.

woman at hair salon what is balayage

Balayage vs Highlights: What Are the Differences & Similarities?

The similarities between balayage and highlights are important to note first since balayage is actually a form of highlights. (Surprise, surprise!) But it’s safe to say that balayage has been more popular lately due to its many perks.

“Balayage is way more forgiving than highlights when it comes to growing out and maintenance. It will still look good – sometimes even better – months after you leave the salon,” says Denis. Esposito agrees, adding that “highlights will look dimensional and more intentional instead of sun-kissed like balayage.”

Another great thing about balayage is that it grows out way more flattering and natural-looking than traditional highlights, says Denis: “It's definitely a softer line of demarcation and actually, you sort of start off with one look when you leave the salon, but then get to enjoy different looks as it grows out. You can also pop back into the salon for glosses just to freshen up the tone and pigment, without having to retouch the highlights.” 

RELATED: Read These Expert Tips Before You Dye Your Hair at Home

How Can You Tell If Balayage Is Done Correctly?

“I'd say the two main things to look out for to tell if your balayage was done properly are no noticeable bleed marks and a really, really soft, almost unnoticeable line between the root area, mid-lengths, and ends,” says Denis.

The reason bleed marks can happen is because balayage is often done freehand without the use of foil or meche strips. Without this barrier, it can lead to the lightener bleeding.

“The right level of developer for lifting and the right consistency are key. Also, the color variations should look seamless from root to tip. You should barely be able to tell where the lightener starts and ends and it should look pretty natural-looking,” explains Denis. In other words, it should be seamlessly blended, with no hard lines.

balayage vs ombre

How Can You Tell If Balayage Is Not Done Correctly?

If your hair was done incorrectly, it shows itself in some not-so-pretty ways, such as your hair breaking, your hair health becoming compromised, and bleed marks appearing everywhere. When this happens, switch colorists to get it fixed. “You don't want to keep compromising the health of your hair and color on top of color can be tricky,” explains Denis. “You want someone who's going to preserve your hair while fixing it for you.”

If it's the tone/color that's off, go back to your colorist with references and show them exactly what you're thinking. She says that pictures are the best way to communicate what you want since people could have different ideas as to what "gold,” "caramel," or "natural" looks like. “You could also sit with it for a few days and see what happens when it fades to after a few washes,” adds Denis. “You might like it once you break it in a bit.”

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How to Care for These Hair Color Treatments

Caring for all three of these hair color treatments is important — and all the same. Right away, Esposito recommends using a sulphate-free, color-safe shampoo and conditioner since anything else could actually alter or fade your color.

You should also aim to do glazes and toners every few weeks, even before it’s time for a touch-up, says Denis. By doing so, it adds tone, softness, and shine to your hair. It will also keep your color looking better for longer.

When you do visit the salon for maintenance, you want to make sure that your colorist isn’t overlapping (i.e. using more lightener on the already-dyed hair). “Zero overlap is kind of impossible, but a good colorist will pay attention to how much they're overlapping and will try for as little as possible,” explains Denis.

As for things that you can do at home instead of visiting the salon, leave-in masks and conditioner treatments are a must. Denis also recommends lightening up on the use of heavy heat styling by opting for natural looks instead: “Your natural hair is more beautiful, anyway!”

For girls with curly hair, treatment may be a bit more labor-intensive. “Apply a curling lotion or cream and let air dry or diffuse natural curls,” says Esposito. Just in general, though, for all hair types, she recommends using a thermal protector prior to all heat styling, weekly or bi-weekly moisture masks for your specific hair type, as well as regular haircuts.

We also recommend checking out Vital Proteins Collagen Beauty Glow and our Glow Collagen Shot– both of which contain beauty-boosting ingredients biotin, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid. The addition of collagen in these products help to promote stronger hair, skin, nails, and joints. 

what is ombre

Treatment Notes to Keep in Mind If You’re Blonde

If you’re a blonde, Lucas recommends doing your research and talking to your stylist before choosing a blonde-toning shampoo. “These at-home options are a great way to keep color from going brassy but remember that some of the purple shampoos actually deposit a bit of toner on your hair and can alter your intended color,” says, Lucas. She provides a helpful example: If you worked to get a really warm or golden tone, a purple-toning shampoo might reverse your colorist’s work and make your blond look ashier.

The Latest Hair Color Trends 

The great thing about hair color trends is that they are constantly evolving, giving us each a new and exciting way to show off our personal style and individuality. As for what’s hot right now, Farley says that cool and ashy tones are very trendy, although she does recommend that her clients stick with what works well with their skin. “Trendy ashy hair does you no good if it washes you out and makes you look tired and drab,” says Farley.

And of course, there’s the sun-kissed blonde hues from highlights, balayage, and ombre. In the end, trend or no trend, it’s all about what works for your individual skin tone, vibe, and maintenance goals. Hair color, as lovely as it is, is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so continue doing you.

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