Though low-maintenance hairstyles have been finding favor since the pandemic forced us to part with our salon visits en masse, balayage hair remains a go-to for those seeking soft, blended, natural-looking color. “The term balayage originated in France, from the French term “balayer” (translation: to sweep), explains Illeisha Lussiano, owner of New York salon The Way. The sweeping refers to the mode of color distribution. “Usually, a clay-based lightener or bleach is applied in a sweeping motion to create a diffused highlight that lays on top of the hair to achieve a soft, natural ribbon of color,” says Beauty Supply founder Emaly Baum, who likens the practice to a more artistic means of highlighting.
No longer relegated to roots and ends alone, modern balayage is more customizable than ever, used to brighten around the face or break up natural color to subtle effect. As a bonus, balayage wears well between appointments, particularly when compared to traditional foils—which holds effortless appeal for all of us. “This technique is much more modern and realistic within people’s lifestyles today,” says Jenna Perry Hair Studio colorist Natalie Rotger, who relies on the technique exclusively when highlighting. “It can be done in such a natural way that you can pretend you’ve just been sitting in the sun, or in a very dramatic way but without the harsh line of grow out. It has such a beautiful growout that you can literally come in once to a few times a year.”
Considering testing (or returning to) balayage color for your next salon visit? Here’s everything you need to know.
The Pros and Cons of Balayage Hair
Ask Rotger about the pros of balayage, and she will return with many thoughts. “It’s a lot more ‘expensive’ looking than a foil, in my opinion, especially in the grow out and dimension,” she says. “It’s not as damaging on the hair because you’re usually only lifting a couple of levels, so it’s not compromising the integrity of your hair. What I really love is that you can nerd out and customize painting to the shape of a haircut, texture, and the way your hair grows and lays. I like to call it the gift that keeps on giving. It always looks best a couple of weeks grown out and air dried.”
The customizable nature of the highlight means it works with all skin tones, too.
Though the price tag may be a sticking point for some—full balayage is, on average, more expensive than foil highlights—the time afforded between appointments may counter the initial cost. Experts agree that the primary concern with balayage is stylist know-how. “If you’re thinking of getting your color done, be sure to do your due diligence and search for a stylist that creates hair that really speaks to you,” says Lussiano, who notes that skipping pre-appointment research is aesthetically risky. “Make sure they are familiar with your hair texture, styles you like, and feel aligned with the way you want to present to the world.”
Blackstones Collective hairstylist Phoebe Nathan also notes that a too-bright balayage negates some of the method’s benefits. “If you’re someone who wants to appear super bright from root to tip, this might not be the most suitable service for you,” she says. “The brighter you go from your natural color, the bigger chance there is that you will feel (and see) the grow out as time goes on.”
How Much Does Balayage Cost?
The cost of balayage varies widely depending on where you live, your hair length, and the amount of color you’re after. Partial highlights (which can translate to minimal sections of hair or an all-over touch-up) will cost less than a full service. Be sure to check costs and find a service level that your comfortable with when choosing your salon and stylist.
What to Expect at Your Appointment
1. Consultation, Evaluation, and Color Mixing
After researching your options and selecting a stylist, come prepared with visual references—this will help with clarity during the consultation portion of your appointment. As every element of the balayage experience is bespoke, your colorist will mix up a custom color in keeping with your conversation.
2. Hand-Painting Hair
Next, your stylist will divide hair into sections before painting color directly onto lengths to achieve those soft, subtle ribbons. This can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending on your desired look. Saran wrap may be employed to prevent the color from bleeding from the chosen section.
3. Under the Dryer
The lightening process can take anywhere from 20-50 minutes, and may find you sitting under a dryer to speed things up.
4. Rinse and Treatment
After your dream color is achieved, it’s time for a quick rinse, usually followed by a toner (the better to blend your new color into your natural shade) and a conditioning gloss for moisture and shine.
5. Final Styling
Now that the coloring portion of your appointment is done, it’s time for styling—typically a trim and a blowout. Should you opt for a major cut on the same day as your color, that will be done pre-balayage, the better to paint highlights to suit your new style.
How to Care for Balayage Hair
“A good haircare routine doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated, but a solid color-safe shampoo and weekly hair mask are key to keeping your hair feeling and looking good,” says Nathan. “After all, bleach is bleach, even if it’s for subtle results!” Nathan also recommends seeing your colorist for glossings between treatments, the better to keep the color looking fresh.
Related: The 10 Best Bond Builders for Hair
And be sure to plan ahead! “I always recommend rebooking your follow-up appointment before leaving the salon to help to avoid waiting too long for your re-touch,” says Lussiano. “This also helps avoid any unnecessary damage or unnecessary costs.”
This style may be low-maintenance, but color care is still essential. “Plan to invest in the color safe shampoo and conditioner that your stylist recommends,” says Lussiano. “There’s nothing worse than spending hours in the salon and investing in beautiful hair only to strip the color way faster than necessary with under-qualified products at home.”
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