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What is the Difference between Highlights, Ombre and Balayage?

Updated: May 1, 2020

So you’ve decided. You want THAT look. You know, it’s like, blonde, but blended, but not too blended. And it kind off fades out so your roots grow in. What is THAT? How do I get THAT look?


When colouring your hair, the technique is everything. But correct me if I'm wrong in saying the hairstylist terminology can be CON-FUS-ING for anyone and everyone. How does an ombre differ from a balayage? Are highlights not just the same thing? Why do they all cost different amounts? Welp!

But that’s why we’re here, to break it down for you, hair friends. What is what and why would you get it?


What is it?

Highlights have been around for a really long time. In simple terms, the hair is separated out into sections, where foils are applied and the colour is matched to your current hair tone to provide natural highlights.

Here comes the science. Hydrogen Peroxide is used to strip the hair of its colour before new pigment is applied in foiled sections to avoid bleed into areas of the hair it shouldn't touch.

The foil creates heat, which intensifies the colour. At Zoom we also offer ammonia-free colour, because we recognize that the gentler we are on our hair the better. We also typically build in an Olaplex treatment to make sure the hair retains its integrity in the face of any colour treatment.

Everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Giselle has rocked the traditional highlights in their time, and so a common misconception is that people must go for a balayage to get blended hair.

While a balayage will always offer superior blending, highlights can still offer excellent blends in the right hands. Additionally, highlights can be great for all-over hair colour, where multi-tonal depth isn’t required.

A good hairstylist should be making sure the colour is right for your hair tone, and using the right technique so it doesn’t have that dreaded “chunky” effect where hair is clearly sectioned and not blended.

Why would you get it?

Highlights offer great results at reasonable prices, and even if one isn't opting for blended looks, highlights can be great to colour block and create va-va-voom realness. You may see all-over head highlights when someone gets a full colour because stripping the hair of their natural colour is essential when going for a bright or bold red all over, for example.

What does it cost?

Out of all the colour methods, highlights are on the less-expensive side. It is more expensive than a simple hair dye, but somewhat less expensive than balayage which requires more manual labour. It costs $130+ at Zoom for highlights.


What is it?

Quite literally a French word that means “sweeping”, the balayage is a technique that does away with the traditional approach to hair highlights, instead allowing stylists to paint on the colour in sweeping freehand.

This look has become enormously popular with people like the Kardashians, Rihanna, and Gisele being amongst its popular adoptees.

That is to say, Balayage offers the appearance of fully blended, highly-natural colour with a red-carpet finish.

It is significantly more blended that traditional highlights, and that’s because it is applied freehand, allowing your stylist to offer a look that feels more ‘natural’, where your hair is not perfectly even in colour at every length, strand, or depth. This is what makes hair colour appear to be authentic—imperfection.

Applying balayage requires a highly-skilled stylist, but also is considerably quicker to process than traditional highlights when foils aren’t used. Foils intensify colour, so as Balayages typically do not use them, you may need additional applications on the same sitting to achieve truly blended results. The time taken can be anywhere from 1-3 hours.

So how is it different from highlights, exactly?

The short answer: Balayages look more blended than highlights, and offer multi-tonal depth. It emulates the way the sun hits the hair and head to create a more natural look.

That’s not to say they are a world apart—some balayage artists will use foils too, to help expedite the lightening of the hair, but will still be hand painting everything.

With highlights, foils are painted in sections rather than freehand, and those sections are measured out and locked in. The sectioned approach means that your hair naturally has more contrast, and less blending than when a hair expert is simply painting the colour to your hair freehand.

Why would you get it?

Because natural looks make sense of the majority of people. Balayage can also be adopted for a pastel blend, but most commonly the balayage is seen to blend a dark brown-blonde into lighter blonde.

What does it cost?

Balayages are more expensive than highlights because of the increased product, time and expertise required to apply. General consensus is that it’s worth it, but each individual knows what the different styles mean to them, and so we still have many clients who are just as keen to have highlights.

At Zoom, as of the time of writing, our balayages start at $200

Highlights can also be opted for to touch up key parts of a balayage, or intensify the front of the hair, framing the face.


What is it?

Popularized by the likes of Beyonce, Chrissy Teigen, and pretty much every online influencer ever, Ombre became a style sensation in 2018 and hasn’t left our radar since.

Ombre is actually not a hair-application technique. In French, Ombre literally means ‘shade’ and that is really the name of the game, as it is effectively a transition between a darker shade and a lighter shade in your hair. And this is done through a form of balayage.

Hand-painted balayage technique is used to create an ombre, so that’s why you’ll hear ombre often called an ‘Ombre-Balayage’ because ombre is simply a style of balayage application, rather than an individual hair technique on its own.

Not all balayage (which remember, are all about blending) necessarily have transitions from darker roots to lighter tips, which is why we define this as ombre — a gradient effect in the hair from root to tip.

Ombre doesn’t have to be from a natural root colour to lighter. It can be from a dark pink to a purple, a blue to a dusty rose, etc.

Ombre allows us to have real fun with our hair, but consult with your hair expert on which is best for you given your style needs.

Ombres received a bit of a bad rap when a wave of at-home dip-dyeing attempted to emulate the style with mixed-to-poor results, but a good stylist will always be able to ID that. Natalia says, “People often confuse the harsh lines of a dip-dye with an ombre. A good ombre will always have lush, blended mid-tones. You should feel safe to expect that level of expertise from your stylist for sure”

Why would you get it?

We’ve all been there, its four weeks out and roots are back, already.

With the right stylist, both balayage and highlights can be strategically applied to reduce root grow-in, but none are as forgiving as the hallowed ground of the ombre balayage, which typically transitions those dark natural colours of hair into lighter ends. Because the hair grows from the root, you’ll keep that colour looking great for longer (with a little touch up here and there).

This means Ombre works especially well for unicorn hair colouring or pastel hairstyles, because the root transitions forgive the grow-in from less natural colours.

What does it Cost?

This varies from salon to salon, but expect it to hit the same price range as a balayage.

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