Highlights vs. Lowlights: Which Technique Is Right For You?

When you want to change up your look without making a commitment to something drastic—think: a whole new hair color!—highlights and lowlights may be the way to go. But, how do you know which one to ask your stylist for? Below we’re breaking down the difference between highlights and lowlights, giving pro tips on what to ask for, and sharing some inspiration for your next visit to the salon.


Highlights Vs. Lowlights

While highlights and lowlights offer different end results, they can both be thought of as a pop of color instead of a full hair color transformation. Where highlights brighten your natural shade, whether in the form of a face-framing money piece or a full-head of foils, lowlights help to deepen your color. Think of it the way you edit a photo, highlights brighten, and lowlights give the scene contrast – and when you’re done, you’ve got dimension. We love highlights and lowlights for their ability to remove flatness and dullness from your hair color, without changing it.

But in the battle of highlights vs. lowlights, how do you choose which is best for you? Aside from talking to your stylist and asking every question you’ve got—because a proper consultation is just as important for them as it is for you!—here are some tips on how to decide.

What Are Highlights?

Highlights are one of the most common hair color processes and can apply to a number of different techniques from foils to balayage.

“Choose highlights for a brighter look,” says Redken Artist Laura Carmichael. Depending on the look you want to achieve, highlights can be applied either strand by strand for a glowy, sunkissed look, or in larger panels for a bold, chunky effect.

When you highlight your hair, you’re typically lightening selected strands 2-3 shades lighter than your base color. For brunettes this can mean anything from honey to golden to caramel; for redheads, something in the strawberry blonde family is gorgeous; and for blondes, you can expect to see highlights that range from a gold to a champagne to a platinum.

Popular Types of Highlights

Highlights, like any salon color service, are anything but one-size-fits-all. Your colorist will work with you to customize your look and, depending on your desired end result, can use a number of different techniques.

Foil Highlights – Foil highlights are what most people think of first when they think of highlights. They involve separating off a section of hair, placing it in a foil, and applying the lightener to that section only before closing the foil. This allows you to get much more contrast with your end look. With foils you can opt for a full head of highlights or a partial head, where your colorist will only highlight the crown and the top layer of your hair. With foils the highlight placement can start anywhere but most often is at or around the root.


Babylights – With babylight highlights your colorist will weave out superfine sections, leaving you with a natural, sun-kissed look—very reminiscent of a child’s hair highlighted by the sun in the summer months.

Balayage – We’ll dive deeper into this French technique below, but balayage has risen the ranks from a trending highlighting technique to a mainstay on most salon service menus. Leaving you with natural results that grow out effortlessly and without sharp lines of demarcation, thanks to a lower highlight placement, balayage remains a popular technique for a reason!

Foilyage – This fusion of foils and balayage is the perfect combo for anyone looking to have the brightness achieved from foiled highlights and the natural, grown-out look of balayage.


Ombre – Before balayage took the world by storm, ombre highlights were all the rage. Like balayage, with ombre, the highlights start further down the strand—versus at or around the root like foil highlights. However, what makes ombre different is the gradient end result, going from a dark root to a very bright end.

What IS the Money Piece?

Something we often recommend to clients who are just starting to get highlights is the money piece. With the money piece your hairdresser will take a face-framing section of hair—larger panels for that bold look and smaller sections for a more subtle result—and highlight that section, leaving the hair around it your base color. Face-framing highlights are a go-to when you’re looking to brighten your look without changing it too much! Consider them the shimmery highlighter of hair color.

What Are Lowlights?

So, we have our highlight covered, but what if we’re looking to add some contour to our color? For this, you’ll want to try lowlights. Where highlight are 2-3 shades lighter than your base, lowlights are 2-3 shades darker.

Lowlights are a great option if you’re looking to transition to a natural grey hair color instead of covering grey with single process. Lowlights allow you to have a blended transition that will make the process an even more beautiful one! But lowlights aren’t only for transitioning to grey hair, they help to give contrast and deepen every natural hair color, adding richness and dimension.

If your hair is looking a bit flat, lowlights can also help you fake some volume in a sort of hair color optical illusion. And if old highlights are looking dull (or if you want to darken them up when the seasons change), lowlights are a great way to give them a bit of depth and drama.

Your stylist may also choose to use highlights and lowlights together in order to make the end result its most natural and effortless.

Highlights vs. Balayage

While we’re on the topic of effortless, we have to bring back balayage. Balayage is a French technique of highlighting hair that involves carefully hand painting sections of hair to give a natural, sun-kissed look. Your colorist will place the highlighted sections in a way that allows for a subtle blend from the root—they may even add in a root smudge to ensure you’re getting that seamless blend and contrast. Balayage is great when you’re looking for a low-maintenance highlight, since it grows out in a very natural-looking way.

Balayage can last up to 8-12 weeks before needing a touch up at the salon, whereas foiled highlights will often need more frequent touchups.

How to Care for Highlights and Lowlights

Now that you’ve brightened your hair color with highlights (or added some contrast with lowlights) you’ll want to incorporate a few new products into your routine.

Toning Shampoo – Highlighted hair is typically toned in the salon, but as those glosses fade over time, you may see signs of brassiness at home. To counteract this, reach for a toning shampoo. For warm yellow tones try a purple shampoo like Redken Color Extend Blondage and for warm orange tones try a blue shampoo.

For more about toning shampoo, check out everything you need to know about purple shampoo!

Hydrating Hair Mask – Like all color services, highlights and lowlights can stress the hair’s cuticle. Help to prevent the signs of damage by doubling down on hydration. Try a nourishing hair mask like Redken’s Extreme Mask for Damaged Hair. Formulated with protein and lactic acid, it helps to restore strength, balance pH, and smooth hair.


Acidic Hair Care – When you’re not using the purple shampoo to beat brassiness, you’ll want to be using shampoo and conditioner with an acidic pH to help maintain the healthy look and feel of your hair post highlighting. Our favorite? We’re biased, but the Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate collection. Complete with a pre-wash intensive treatment, shampoo, conditioner, and leave-in treatment that doubles as a heat protectant, caring for your highlights really is as easy as ABC.


Want more personalized tips to figure out the best highlight and lowlight options for your hair? Find a Redken Artist and Salon near you!