Learn Which Is Best for Your Hair: Highlights or Single-Process Color

Explore All Your Hair Color Options

Here is an example of single process hair color
Here is an example of single process hair color. ONOKY / Getty Images

When it comes to hair color, you basically have three options: highlighting, single-process color, or double process. But which one is best for you? A few tips will help you sort out the best option for your hair.

Book a Consult

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 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 hair straightening that used chemicals 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.

Single Color vs Highlights

Highlights are a good option if you have a great base hair tone and don't want to mess too much with nature. The highlights will simply enhance it by adding streaks that are a shade or two lighter than your natural color.

Highlights look best 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." 

If you want to spice up a simple haircut with very few layers, highlights are a great option. The process is very flattering on brown and dark blonde hair and useful for covering a few gray hairs.

On the other hand, if you want to go several shades lighter or darker than your natural hair color, single-process (or 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 cannot be easily highlighted. It's also a nice option for adding warmth, which can boost your skin tone, and if you want to cover a considerable amount of gray hair. All-over color can also complement a trendy haircut that may be over the top with highlights.

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. It can really add a boost to the color and make hair shinier.

You can also get both processes. 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.

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 many 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 is a double-process color. It also changes your entire hair color, but it adds dimension and extra color during 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, 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, but it can also 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. Deep condition it regularly and do your best to avoid a lot of heat styling, which can lead breakage and split ends. Talk to your stylist about whether your hair is healthy enough to take it and get tips for caring for your specific hair afterward.

Your Highlight Options

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 streaky or well-blended. You can get up to five 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 great base color and want to go just 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 became really popular in the 90s and is experiencing a bit of a resurgence
  • Lowlights allow the stylist to add darker shades of hair and it's often combined with highlights. This can give your color even more contrast and dimension.

At-Home Haircolor

For various reasons, some people simply prefer to color their own hair at home. The good news is that home color kits have come a long way in the past few years, so getting a great color is relatively simple.

If you want a drastic change, it's often best to not do it yourself. You'll get better results if you go to a professional. Yet, if you are dying your hair two shades lighter or darker than its natural state, there should be no problems doing your own color.

Some great hair coloring kits include  L'Oreal Natural Match Hair Color and Clairol Nice and Easy.

You can also highlight your own hair, although we recommend enlisting the help of a friend. Highlighting is not something you want to try on your own head by yourself. Not only is it very awkward to work the color in, your friend will be able to ensure you get nice spacing and coverage. To help you out, L'Oreal has excellent tutorials that will walk you through the steps of DIY hair chunking and other techniques.