Highlighting and Lowlighting Techniques

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How to Choose the Right Highlights

Hairstylist coloring clients hair with foils.
Peter Muller/ Cultura/ Getty Images

Highlights (in hair) are defined as lightened pieces of hair that are colored lighter than your natural or base color. Lowlights are virtually the same thing, only darker pieces of hair are added to your hair color. The techniques for applying highlights and lowlights are virtually the same. Highlights and/or lowlights create definition in your hair color, brighten up dull or mousey hair color, or can completely transform your color, depending on the technique you request. Often your hairstylist will choose the technique that she's most comfortable with or that she thinks will work best with your hair type, however knowing what your options are can give you a leg up on your color consultation. The following pages describe the difference between foil, bayalage, and cap highlighting techniques.

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Foil Highlights or Lowlights

Foil Highlights
Foil Highlights. Dean Wissing/Flickr

Foil highlights or lowlights are likely the most popular hair highlighting method used today. Pieces of foil are used to separate the hair that will be colored or lightened from the hair that will not be altered. Foil is the material of choice simply because it's cheap and very easy to work with and manipulate. Typically a hair lightening bleach is used to lighten the hair, and hair color (hair dye) is used to darken the hair, although hair color can also be used to lighten natural uncolored hair.

Foiled highlights are a popular choice because customizing options for this service is limitless. A very wide variety of techniques have been developed over the years using unique sectioning and placement of the foils. Hair can be weaved and sliced using the foil to create the exact chunks, streaks, or subtle pieces that you want. Using this technique, highlights and lowlights can be made to look more natural or very bold and streaky.

Another reason this highlighting service is preferred is because highlights can be placed very close to the scalp using foil without getting lightener directly on the scalp, reducing irritation to the scalp and face. It can be a pricey service and can take two to four hours to complete a full foil highlight, depending on the thickness of your hair and the end result desired.

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Bayalage Highlights or Lowlights

Natural Bayalage Highlights
Natural Bayalage Highlights. Natashad H/Flickr

Bayalage highlights and lowlights are quickly taking over highlighting services in salons everywhere, even though the technique has been around since the 1980's. Bayalage highlights are free-hand painted or swept onto the hair at the colorist's discretion. The options for bayalage highlights are also vast and a variety of bayalage techniques have become popular in recent years. There's not really a right or wrong way to bayalage, giving your colorist a lot of creative freedom.

Bayalage highlights and lowlights typically result in a more natural, sun-kissed look than foil highlights and are a popular option for ombre hair color graduation. Because the results are more subtle than foil highlights, bayalage highlights often grow out in a more seamless manner without an obvious line of demarcation that you get when foiled highlights and lowlights grow out.

The skill set of your stylist is key when requesting a bayalage highlighting service. It's absolutely as artistic as it is a skillset, and an unskilled colorist could quite easily destroy your hair color with misplaced bayalage highlighting.

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Cap Highlights

Cap highlights are the dinosaur of hair highlighting techniques and are not used often in modern-day salon. Cap highlighting methods utilize a highlighting cap that is placed on the head. Small pieces of hair are then pulled through the cap using a small highlighting hook. Only the hair that is pulled through the cap is exposed to the hair lightener or bleach. Cap highlights have also been referred to as "frosted hair".

While cap highlights can look very nice and are much less expensive and time consuming than foil or bayalage highlights, the options are limited for customizing your highlight service and getting close to the scalp can also be an issue with the cap. Long and curly hair can be hard to pull through a cap, and your color options are limited to one color only with cap highlights. You kind of "get-what-you-get" when you go the cap route.