A Guide to Highlights: Which Hair Color Look Is Right For You?

Victoria Moorhouse
model with blonde highlights


Highlights have done a lot of growing up over the years. Long gone are the days of blending lemon juice and water into a spritz bottle and dousing your hair in the formula with hopes of having some sun-kissed strands by the time you leave the beach. Another blast from the past? The “every other” spaghetti stripe highlights that looked like more of a patterned arrangement than something naturally occurring in your ‘do. The hair coloring trend of highlighting, as a rule (when it comes to summer, anyway), usually consists of lightening up pigmented sections of your hair to make it look like the sun did all the work. While it seems like the safe, subtle option for the girl who isn’t ready to commit to a double-process, it’s also one of the most varied and popular hair coloring approaches out there, with new techniques, names, and overall looks popping up on the reg.

Going into the salon and asking for “highlights” just isn’t going to cut it. If you ask for that umbrella term, expect your colorist to prod you a bit more for your hair wants and desires. To break it down for you, we put together a highlight guide, with info from some of the best colorists in the biz, that differentiates your ombre from your sombre so you know exactly what to ask for when you head into the salon.

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Expert: Rachel Bodt, Senior Colorist and Educator at Cutler/Redken Salon
The Look: “Ombré is soft and grown-out, think sun-kissed and surfer-like. Most of the lightness is concentrated on the mid-shaft and ends and looks very natural, as if the hair naturally lightened on its own accord,” she explains.
The Technique: “Ombré can be done many different ways. Hair painting or balayage is one way this leaves it looking soft and not freshly colored, when you see the girl with a more lived-in color,” Bodt tells us. “If your hair is dark and you are looking to take it incredibly light, the painting technique may work, but I personally prefer foils. The foils conduct the heat and allow the hair to get lighter. Seasoned stylists will back-comb the hair to soften the line of demarcation, and make it look more natural.”
The Upkeep: “The beauty of the ombré is that it keeps looking better and better the less you do to it. For my long hair clients, I recommend maybe 2-3 times a year. If you have hair around shoulder-length or collarbone, I would say 4 times a year, depending on how often you get it cut.”

Cassonda Kaeding, Colorist at Sally Hershberger LA
The Look:
“Sombre is basically a more redefined ombre—less severe (soft-ombre). Sombre is a subtle graduation from roots to ends and this change is so minute, but it can still make a big difference,” she says of this grown-out-like look.
The Technique: Highlights or foils, depending on who you see and their preference, Kaeding tells us. However, she says that the balayage effect will be more natural compared to foils, which can “pack a little more punch” into the overall look.
The Upkeep: “The upkeep is really quite simple. Use a color-safe shampoo and conditioner. Also, talk to your colorist about coming in a few weeks to a few months for a gloss to refresh your color,” she explains.

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Expert: Joel Warren, Master Colorist and Co-Founder at Warren-Tricomi Salons
The Look: “Babylights is a term for highlights that are woven gently into the hair,” Warren tells us. “What happens is that selective hairs are lightened so that your hair looks as if it’s growing as babies’ hair does. This concept arrived from clients bringing in pictures of their children and requesting their color, hence the name babylights.”
The Technique: “I like using foils with a mixture of different colors to create abstract looks because hair doesn’t grow perfectly,” explains Warren.
The Upkeep: Our expert says this particular style grows out gradually, so expect to visit the salon about every two months for your touch-up.

Expert and Creator of the Trend: Aura Friedman, Colorist at Sally Hershberger Downtown
The Look: “‘Splashlights’ is a term I coined to describe a horizontal highlight that resembles the reflection of light on the hair. This is a conceptual idea and range in contrast and color. There can be one or several. It is the literal comic book appearance of light reflecting off of hair,” she says.
The Technique: “I have used more than one technique depending on hair texture and location of the highlight, but I have found that painting freehand and envisioning where the hair falls has been the best way so far,” Friedman explains.
The Upkeep: “Depending on where it is placed, it can be left to grow out, with just minor occasional, 2 to 3 months, glossing/toning. Part of the concept of this color is that it is forever evolving—as it grows down the hair and changes position, it becomes a new look each time.”

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The Expert
: Rachel Bodt, Senior Colorist and Educator at Cutler/Redken Salon
The Look:
“Ecaille hair color has soft color at the roots and soft face frame highlights or accent pieces, on top of having lightness at the ends,” says Bodt of this variation on the ombre. “Tortoiseshell hair color connects that light blonde color through the top of the head and also has other tones like honey or peanut butter, so it looks more marbleized.”
The Technique: “I love to use a combination of foils and hair painting. This allows it to look seamless and gets color through out the whole head,” she says.
The Upkeep: 10-12 weeks, as Bodt says this multidimensional color allows for the client to come in whenever he or she wants.