What Is Balayage?

You can DIY balayage, and online videos can show you how. (Photo: hedgehog94/Shutterstock)

If you've ever highlighted your hair, you know how difficult it is to make it look as natural as spending a summer outside does. Even right after leaving the salon, I've had the experience of feeling like somehow the colors weren't blending very well. I always chalked that up to having difficulty finding a great highlight complement to my natural hair color, but now I realize, it's probably more about how the color was being applied to my hair.

A popular coloring technique, called balayage, makes highlights look a lot more natural due to the way it's applied. Instead of highlighting chunks of hair on the outside or just around the face, balayage is about painting the hair with color, strand-by-strand. "The word literally means to sweep [in French]," colorist Lauren E. Hack, cofounder of Lauren+Vanessa salon in New York, told PopSugar. "You sweep the color onto the hair strand by strand."

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is — and the price you'll pay for balayage vs. traditional highlights will reflect that extra time the stylist will spend. But because the highlights are much closer to how human hair lightens naturally, it doesn't need to be repeated as often, which is ideal for those who want to play with hair color but don't want to feel like a slave to the salon. These labor-intensive highlights grow out more softly and naturally.

Balayage also makes hair look thicker: "Our hair follicle is thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom," said Hack. "With balayage, you are able to create the illusion that the hair is more full at the bottom by painting thin to thick highlights from top to bottom, never seeing where the color begins and ends." This visual trick means you can make thin hair look fuller without resorting to mixing and matching styling products and spending extra time with curling irons.

If you want to get bayalage-d by your hair stylist, the best idea is to bring pictures to show her or him. Keep in mind that balayage isn't just for "natural" looking highlights. You can also highlight with bright colors like cherry red, purple or bright blue — though this tends to work best in those with either really light (platinum blonde) or very dark brown or black hair. Because the color work is more subtle, there needs to be a significant contrast between the mermaid green color of your dreams and the background color. That green will pop against white-blonde hair or even better, black hair, but if your hair is in the medium brown/dark blonde range, it will just end up blending in and looking weird. So, when you choose examples to bring to your stylist, don't forget to be realistic and take into consideration what your natural or base hair color is.

If you have colored your hair before and feel confident, you can DIY balayage at home. There are tutorials and step-by-step instructions online, although they might not all give true balayage results. Some beauty bloggers say you can get the same outcome with store-bought hair dye, while others insist you need to use bleach from a beauty supply store.