Should You Get Highlights or Single-Process?

Hair stylist painting red hair
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When it comes to hair color, you have three main options: highlighting, single-process color, or double process. But which one is better for you? It's hard to figure out on your own, and some probably won't be possible with your hair color or cut. You'll know best after having a talk with your stylist.

We always recommend getting a hair color consult with a professional if you aren't sure what you want.

Bring pictures along of hair you like or want to achieve. Your colorist will know what to do to show off your haircut and highlight your features, and will be able to find the right shades of color to flatter your skin tone. During your consult, be sure to mention any other hair processing you've had done, such as chemical hair straightening, and at-home dye jobs. Even though salon hair colors are much easier on hair than box colors, you don't want to over-process your hair and risk damaging it.

Highlights are a good option if you have a great base hair tone, and don't want to mess too much with your natural hair. Often peoples' introduction to hair coloring, highlights will just enhance your hair by adding streaks that are a shade or two lighter than your natural color. They look the most dynamic when the stylist uses at least two different shades. You can also ask for face-framing highlights to brighten your complexion.

 

Stylist Darren Anderson offers some excellent advice:

"With highlights, your colorist should be using more than one color, not just bleach. Great highlights should be layered to produce tonal variations. There should be lights, mediums, and darks to create depth and translucence in the hair. Highlighting should be like painting a masterpiece and you can’t do that with just one color." 

There are basically four types of highlights: basic foil highlights, balayage or "hair painting," chunking or "piecing," and lowlights.

  • Foil highlights are the most traditional highlight methods. It adds strands of uniform color to hair, and it can be made streaky or well-blended. You can get many different shades for a natural look.
  • Balayage, or "hair painting," allows the stylist to add natural stripes of color to hair in large or small swaths. This is a great choice if you have a base color you love and just want to go a couple shades lighter in certain areas. You won't need to get your roots touched up as much with balayage as you do foils, and it grows out better than any other color option.
  • Chunking (also known as piecing) is when thick stripes of color are painted onto the hair. It was really popular in the 90s, but is still cool today. 
  • Lowlights allow the stylist to add darker shades of hair, and they're often combined with highlights. This can give your color even more contrast and dimension.

If you want to spice up a simple haircut but have very few layers, highlights are a great option. The style is particularly flattering on brown and dark blonde hair, and it's useful for covering a few gray hairs because they blend in with the highlights.

Single-Process Color

On the other hand, if you want to go several shades lighter or darker than your natural hair color, single-process (also known as all-over color) is the way to go. This process changes the color of your entire head of hair, giving you a new, one-dimensional tone that can be as dramatic or subtle as you like. 

Single process color is a great choice if you have very short hair that can't be easily highlighted. It's also a nice option for adding warmth, which can boost your skin tone, or you want to cover a considerable amount of gray hair. All-over color can complement a trendy haircut that may look a little too "let me speak to your manager" with highlights. It's also just nice when you're trying to darken your hair in a uniform way. 

Keep in mind that due to root growth, all-over coloring will need to be touched up every four to eight weeks, while highlights can last up to two or three months.

Ask your stylist about a gloss treatment following your color, too, which can really add a boost to the color and make hair shinier.

You can also get both highlights and single-process. This is a good choice if you, for instance, want to cover gray hair but still want the extra dimension highlights offer. An all-over color can also correct a previous color job, sun damage, or overprocessing before getting highlights. However, another thing to consider is the cost. In most salons, single-process color is cheaper than highlights. Additionally, single-color tends to be gentler on your hair than highlights. The bleach used in highlight formulas can cause damage, particularly if you have them done often, or use other chemical hair treatments.

Double-Process Color

The alternative to single-process color or highlights is a double-process color. It also changes your entire hair color, but it adds dimension and extra color through the second treatment.

Typically, the double-color process is used when you want to take dark hair much lighter. Stylists begin by bleaching out your natural hair color (which could take one or several hours,) then apply the new color. It can also be done with an overall color, then a highlight treatment during the second stage. This process is often the secret to the great hair we see on many celebrities, but it comes at a price. Not only will you be paying for two separate color treatments—which gets pricey—but too much of it can lead to damaged hair.

If you opt for this process, you will need to take care of your hair more than with the other color options to offset the additional chemicals. This means buying a set of products to maintain it. Deep condition it regularly and do your best to avoid a lot of heat styling, which can lead breakage and split ends. When you do heat style, use a heat protectant every time. Talk to your stylist about whether your hair is healthy enough to take double-processing, and get tips for caring for your specific hair afterward.