Balayage vs Highlights: What’s the Difference?

It seems like everyone is getting balayage these days so it must be what you want as well, right? Wrong. Balayage is not for everyone. You can get two completely different looks with highlights and balayage. So what is the difference and which one do you actually want?

Balayage and highlights are extremely similar so it makes sense that they would get mixed up all the time. The truth is, balayage is actually a technique to get a certain type of highlight. Although, when people talk about balayage vs highlights, they are generally talking about the traditional highlight look and the lived-in, natural look.

To make it a little easier for you, here are the main differences between balayage and highlights. The next time you go into the salon for your color, you’ll be able to tell your hairdresser exactly what you’re looking for without confusion.

Main Differences Between Balayage and Highlights

  • Balayage uses a hand-painted technique, whereas highlights require foils in a pattern
  • Balayage color fades up to the root, whereas highlights color all of the way up to the root
  • Balayage provides a natural and rooty look, whereas highlights brighten the entire hairstyle
  • Balayage allows for more customizable appearances, whereas highlights provide a consistent pattern
  • Balayage doesn’t require as much maintenance to keep up with, whereas highlights require more maintenance
  • Balayage is more expensive to get, whereas highlights aren’t as pricey



Hand-painted technique Foiled in a pattern
Color fades up to the root Even color all the way up to the root
Natural, rooty look Brighter, all-over look
More customizable Consistent pattern
Less maintenance More maintenance
More expensive Less expensive


The term “balayage” comes from the french word “balayer,” meaning to sweep. It got this name from the technique hairstylists use to create balayage. They “sweep” the color onto the hair to create a color that is brighter on the ends and gradually fades up to the root. 

The Look

Balayage creates a natural look that mimics the highlights that young kids get from being out in the sun. It gets brighter on the ends of the hair and gradually highlights up to the root where there is almost no lightness. Typically, it is also lighter around the front, towards your face, and lighter on top than underneath.

There are a massive number of ways that someone can do balayage. You can make it so all of your ends are blonde or some of your natural color still goes through the ends. It can be majorly balayage, making your hair mostly blonde or you can add only a few balayage pieces. You can also do only face-framing pieces to give you a little bit of lightness around your face. 

Balayage is extremely customizable. That’s why whenever you look up photos of balayage, you see loads of different colors. It is important to be prepared with photos of what you do like and what you don’t like when doing a consultation with your hairstylist.


The number one benefit of having balayage over highlights is the maintenance. You could let balayage grow all the way out without ever coloring it again if you wanted to. Nobody would notice that your hair color is grown out. 

Since balayage is applied in a way that it fades up to the root, as it grows out, it will always fade up into your natural color. There will never be a visible line where you can see how much your color has grown out. However, if your balayage starts fading toward the middle of your hair, it will not last as long as if it starts fading toward the top. 

If you do decide to keep up with your balayage and not let it simply grow out, it is recommended to have it brought up every 3 to 4 months. This will give it enough growth for the stylist to create that fade up to where it was before without anyone noticing it looked any different. 

Although you can go long periods of time in between maintenance, your hair may get lighter than originally intended as balayage is done over and over again. It is wise to add lowlights with your balayage every third or fourth visit to keep it looking natural.


The initial cost of balayage can be substantially more than highlights. Balayage typically costs $200 or more. The price can go up or down depending on where you live, the type of color your stylist uses, how much experience your stylist has, and how easily your color can be achieved.

Even though balayage costs quite a bit more than standard highlights, the price seems to even out over time. Highlights require a lot more maintenance. Therefore, you will be in the salon more often to get your hair highlighted than to get balayage. 

Maintenance for balayage usually costs less than the initial application as well. It requires less color and is applied faster than the initial process. You may only need a few “money pieces” brought up around your face instead of doing the whole head. 


The original way to highlight a person’s hair is to select certain pieces of hair, separate them out with foil, and lighten those selected pieces of hair. There was a period where the infamous “cap” was used but quickly became obsolete. You can get anything from a natural, blended look to a chunky look with traditional highlights.

The Look

Highlights give you an all-over, dimensional color. Highlights are applied from roots to end in a pattern leaving a base color in between, rather it is your natural or another color. This will give you a completely new look, whereas balayage is usually subtle and natural.

You can achieve many different looks with foiled highlights. Depending on where your stylist places the foils and how thick the foils are, you can get anything from subtle grey blending to chunky highlights that everyone will notice. You can even foil in “peak-a-boos” of color for a pop that will show as your hair moves. 

People who want highlights over balayage are usually looking for something that will stand out. That could either be a really bright, multi-tone blonde or pieces of different color throughout. Make sure to bring in plenty of photos to your stylist of what you do and do not like for reference when getting highlights done.


One thing to keep in mind when getting highlights done is it does require more maintenance than balayage. There is no fade between where the color is applied and your natural color. Therefore, you will notice when it starts growing out. 

Since highlights are applied evenly throughout the hair, as your natural color comes in, there will be a distinct line between the colored hair and your natural hair. An average person’s hair grows about half an inch a month. How often you come in for a touchup depends on when it starts annoying you. Typically, people have their highlights touched up every 6 weeks.

Just like with balayage, as you go in for touch-ups, your hair may become lighter over time. The only way to avoid this is if you have chunkier highlights, your stylist can go over the same pieces every single time. For people who are wanting a more natural look, it is recommended to add in lowlights every third highlight touch up or whenever you feel it has become too blonde. 


The price for highlights can be anywhere between $75 to $150 for a full head of highlights. This price can change depending on how much highlighting you want to be done, where you go to get your highlights done, your stylist’s experience, and the type of color used on you. For instance, you could get a mini highlight for half the cost.

Highlights’ initial cost is a lot cheaper than balayage. However, highlights require more maintenance than balayage. If you have less money to spend right away, highlights are more affordable right away. Overtime highlights are more expensive than balayage though because you have to go in more often to have it touched up.

When going in for a touch-up, it usually is not cheaper than the initial application. Some salons may charge a little less for a highlight touch-up if they charged for extra bowls of color when they initially highlighted it. Most likely you will pay the same amount for a touch-up as you did with the first highlight.

Hybrid Options


Also known as “teasy-lights,” this form of highlighting gives you a balayage look that can be made brighter than balayage. With foilayage, you’re taking smaller sections of hair, teasing those sections to blend it, and can add in as many foils as needed. It’s basically doing traditional highlights with a blended root.


This form of highlighting creates a super blended look that most people may not even notice. It simply adds a bit of brightness without being able to see distinct highlights. This is great to blend in greys or if you want a little lightness throughout, without the harsh grow out.

Highlights with Balayage

You can do both techniques of highlighting together if you want something in between the two. The highlights will give you a brighter look, while the balayage keeps you looking sun-kissed. This is great for those who want to be brighter than you can be with balayage, but still, look natural.

Which one is best for you?

You want to be really blonde all over.

For an even blonde that is as bright as your hair can be, highlights are the best option for you. This will give you a blonde from top to bottom that makes your whole head look brighter and dimensional. Ask for a heavy full head highlight and be prepared to come in for a retouch every 4 to 6 weeks. 

You want to look natural and sunkissed.

Balayage will give you the look to fool anyone into thinking that you just spent a long summer at the beach. For the most natural look, ask for your balayage to be focused on the top layers and around your face with some lowlights of your natural throughout. Grow it out until next summer or touch it up every few months to keep the summer hair going. 

You want to be really blonde without the maintenance.

This is where you want a hybrid of techniques used for your highlights. The best way to get really blonde while only needing a touch-up every three months is to do a mixture of baby lights and foilayage. The baby lights are thin enough highlights to blend right into your natural, while the foilayage will make you really blonde through the mids and ends. 

You don’t want to spend a lot but want some sort of brightness.

A mini balayage may be the best option for you. It costs more than a mini highlight, but you will save money over time by not needing it touched up every 6 weeks. If you want to look slightly brighter, ask your hairstylist to focus your mini balayage around your face to make it pop where it matters. 

You want to cover grey hair.

Highlights will blend your grey hair seamlessly. There is no way to completely cover grey hair with highlights or balayage since they both leave natural hairs out for dimension. However, highlights are done from root to end whereas balayage starts an inch or lower from the root. Since highlights cover the area that grey hair comes from, it will be enough to blend it together. 


Question: Would balayage or highlights be better for a really light blonde?

Answer: Highlights are better if you want an all-over, super-light blonde. You can get lighter blondes with balayage, but it usually takes a couple of trips to the salon before it gets really bright. If you want a balayage look that’s really blonde, it’s best to do a mixture of both techniques in one sitting.

Question: Does balayage or highlights last longer?

Answer: Balayage will last longer than highlights without needing a touchup. Highlights are colored evenly all the way up to the root. As it grows out there will be a line where new hair has grown in. Balayage is applied in a way that it fades up to the root.

Question: Is balayage healthier than highlights?

Answer: Not necessarily. Both applications usually require bleach to lighten the hair. It also largely depends on how light you want it, how much blonde you want, and your current hair health. I wouldn’t let the health of your hair determine which one you get though. If you have a good hairstylist, they will know how to keep your hair from getting damaged.

Question: Is balayage more expensive than highlights?

Answer: Balayage is more expensive than highlights. A number of factors go into the reason why. It requires more technical skills, more time to apply, and more color products to complete. Balayage may also require more steps than highlights depending on your hair. 

Question: Can you use balayage to cover grey hair?

Answer: The simple answer is no. Balayage does not cover your roots so it would not cover grey hair. However, you could get an all-over color to cover the grey hair and add balayage on top of that color.


Most of the time, people want a mixture of both balayage and highlights to get that perfect lightness while still having a blended, natural look. Overall though, balayage is the way to go. It saves you money in the long-run, is more customizable, and super trendy right now. Remember to bring in lots of pictures when asking a hairstylist for your balayage.

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