There's a Real Difference Between Balayage and Ombré—And Phew, We Finally Get It
Currently apologizing in hindsight, to our stylists.
Things might have been simpler when coloring your hair meant pretty much one thing: foil highlights, heavy on the roots. But with highlighting techniques like balayage, babylights, and shadow roots taking over, our new normal is all about customizable hair color, and we’re better for it—though getting all of the terms straight warrants a few semesters in cosmetology school. The hair of your dreams lies just beyond the gates, but you need the passcode first. You can get that by knowing which type of hair color is going to give you what you want.
Like, say, choosing between balayage and ombré. (Wait, there’s a difference?) These two terms make up a puzzling pair that seriously needs some clearing up. First, the nuts and bolts: Balayage is a technique, and ombré is a gradient of hair color. You use the technique (balayage) to achieve the finish (ombré).
Balayage—meaning “to sweep” in French—offers gorgeous highlighting that looks naturally sun-kissed while keeping things relatively low maintenance. Unlike traditional highlighting, it focuses more on the ends and gets blended or feathered as it moves up. (If you see your stylist reach for the foils, don’t panic. Though balayage is a free-hand painting technique, some stylists use foil to help the lightening process.) Ombré is when a stylist uses the balayage technique to create a cascading gradient of color that begins darkest at the roots, blends into a rich medium shade towards the middle, and finishes with lightened ends. Basically, you need balayage to achieve ombré hair, but balayage on its own can give many different looks by using different shades dynamically throughout the hair for a multi-dimensional finish (read: not just for an organized gradient of color).
Ombré was the major hair trend to get a few years ago, but developed a bad reputation once dip-dyed looks started popping up. Dip-dyed hair skips the medium shade in the middle of the ‘gradient’ that should blend the dark roots into the light ends; instead it goes for a contrasting two-tone effect. When used on mocha roots with a warm chestnut shade from the middle section to the ends, the result looks more natural. When the two shades are wildly different, such as dark mocha and platinum blonde, the result looks less than natural.
You can rest easy, if interested in ombré. The dip-dye trend has largely gone out of fashion, letting ombré go au naturel. Sombré emerged as a delicate take on traditional ombré, and the style uses balayage highlighting to create a super seamless, subtle gradient of color. The ‘soft ombré’ look gives that flattering cascading of color without causing too much of a stir.
Let’s repeat it together, one more time: Balayage is the highlighting technique, and ombré is the look. Balayage doesn’t have to be ombré, but ombré needs balayage.
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Now that you’ve got the tools you need to head into your next highlighting appointment, it’s time to pick the perfect balayage look for you.