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10 Ways to Get the Right Highlights for Your Hair

Turn heads with a little contrast and shine

spinner image Side by side images of Gina Gershon and Carla Bruni
Gina Gershon (left) and Carla Bruni
Steve Granitz/WireImage; Samir Hussein/WireImage

You know how sparkly earrings light up your face and attitude? Highlights perform the same magic trick for your hair. They brighten every shade from brown to blonde, blend in grays and turn a gray transition fuss-free. And best of all: Highlights make thin, fine, grownup hair look thicker and shining with health. But unfortunately, we often choose highlights that are wrong for our hair color, hair style or wallet — and that’s where things get tricky. Understanding what color “lights” to get and how many makes a difference to your looks and budget. I asked Matrix Brand Ambassador and star colorist George Papanikolas for tips and added my beauty-editor two cents, too. It’s time to get on a winning streak!

spinner image Jenna Elfman, Vanessa Williams and Naomi Watts each with hairstyles with highlights
(Left to right) Jenna Elfman, Vanessa Williams and Naomi Watts
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images; Arturo Holmes/Getty Images; Bruce Glikas/WireImage

1. Balance your expectations and budget

Highlights are amazing, but at a cost ranging from $80 to $300 for a full head they are one of the priciest salon hair services. Plus, add on a base color touch-up, trim, cut and blow-dry and your bill can blow your budget. One reason glittery strands have gotten more expensive is the salon trend for a customized look rather than a one-size-suits-all “frosting.” The cost also depends on whether you choose partial highlights, allover lights, a combo of highlights and lowlights, foils or balayage, plus, of course, the experience of your colorist and salon location. You can minimize the expense and maintenance three ways: choosing low-contrast highlights within two shades of your overall base color; opting for just a few highlights around the face; or asking for a balayage technique instead of foils (see tip number 2 for details). The higher the contrast and number of highlights, the more upkeep and expense.

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spinner image Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry and Helen Hunt showing highlights from bright to blended
(Left to right) Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry and Helen Hunt
Walter McBride/FilmMagic; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for ABA; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

2. Decide on foils or balayage

Not every colorist or salon does both, so know the benefits of each. “Foil highlights give the colorist more control and color lift for a more intense highlighting effect, while balayage gives a softer, more natural summer-at-the-beach effect — and that’s more subtle and blended,” explains Papanikolas. Foils are more traditional and produce balanced symmetrical highlights uniformly from roots to ends. Selected strands are woven out, slathered in lightener and packed individually in foil to “bake.” Foils are a better option when taking dark hair more than three or four shades lighter or if you want a brighter look or high-contrast highlights. You’ll also get a more obvious regrowth line, so expect a touch-up every six to eight weeks for maintenance. In balayage, the highlights are painted by hand directly on the hair in varying widths with the color in a gradient ombré progression from dark to light. Thanks to the seamless grow-out, there’s no redo for three or four months. Balayage works best on tousled layers, lobs and shoulder-length or longer hair. Note that some salons and social media sites are pushing a combo called “foilayage,” with hand-painted highlights and wrapped in foil. My beauty-editor take? No need; do one or the other.

spinner image Christine Baranski, Dana Delany and Vivica A Fox with chunky and discreet highlights
(Left to right) Christine Baranski, Dana Delany and Vivica A. Fox
Bruce Glikas/WireImage; John Lamparski/Getty Images; Arnold Turner/Getty Images for A Manny Halley Production

3. Aim for a multitone effect

Many women dye their hair one color and never get highlights. Others get too many highlights, and their hair takes on a solid one-color hue. It can be a dramatic signature look if it works for you. However, you do get the illusion of fatter, fuller hair, movement and a more contemporary look with the addition of highlights or a combo of highlights and lowlights.  

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“Highlights are when you add lighter strands to the hair; lowlights are when you add darker ones to restore depth and contrast; baby lights are very delicate highlights,” says Papanikolas. “I tend to go chunkier with lowlights, focusing them on the roots and mid shaft. You never want lowlights to go full length because that gives a dreaded Zebra-stripe effect. Thicker, chunkier highlights tend to look edgier and trendier; thinner ones more natural sophisticated.” And I’ll add: The tighter together the highlights, the less contrast and lighter your hair will look.

spinner image Shohreh Aghdashloo, Debbie Matenopoulos and Kate Walsh with varying highlights cool and warm
(Left to right) Shohreh Aghdashloo, Debbie Matenopoulos and Kate Walsh
Laurent Viteur/Getty Images; Paul Archuleta/Getty Images; Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

4. Be sure highlights flatter your hair and skin

Sometimes highlights can look kind of “off.” If this is the case you’re probably piling on more blush, bronzer or a brighter lipstick to compensate. Aside from all the hair benefits, your highlights should also add an extra glow for dull, ashy, sallow or sun-damaged complexion, brightening under-eye circles and softening the look of wrinkles. Sometimes your highlights and skin undertones are not in sync. “A very general rule is for warmer skin tones to opt for cooler highlights, cooler skin tones to go for warmer ones,” says Papanikolas. Cool highlights are in the silver, ash, sand, beige, champagne, mocha or toffee range, while warm lights are more golden caramel, amber, honey, butterscotch, strawberry, copper, russet or cinnamon. Always discuss with your colorist what shades of highlights will boost both your skin and hair.

spinner image Jessica Lange, Wendie Malick and Jodie Foster
(Left to right) Jessica Lange, Wendie Malick and Jodie Foster
Bruce Glikas/WireImage; Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images; Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

5. Use highlights or lowlights while going gray

Whether you want to make incoming grays less noticeable or embrace them, go from processed color to being gray or simply be a better shade of gray, “lights" are your ally. They can enable you to stop and resist full-coverage color. “If you’re trying to transition out of doing regular gray touch-ups, try highlighting (often together with a softer base color) to ease the way to natural gray and soften the harsh grow-out until you’re ready to cut,” says Papanikolas. “Adding lowlights can give the hair more depth and have a gentle, flattering effect on facial lines and features, too.” Obviously, those with lighter blonde to light brown hair have the easiest time. The effect is a blonde-brown-gray mix known as bronde or a blonde-grey mix known as gronde. If you have darker hair, ask your colorist for a combo of lowlights and highlights. It’s a painless alternative to going cold turkey and toughing out the grow-in process.

spinner image Jaclyn Smith, Tina Knowles-Lawson and Ellen Pompeo with highlighted hair
(Left to right) Jaclyn Smith, Tina Knowles-Lawson and Ellen Pompeo
Tibrina Hobson/WireImage; Maury Phillips/Getty Images; Steve Granitz/WireImage

6. Know when you’ve highlighted enough

Sometimes less is more. “The universal rule is to keep highlights within four shades of your base color — any more can look harsh,” says Papanikolas. “At the lightest end brunettes should opt for caramel, auburns for copper gold and blondes or grays can go to baby blonde. Just doing a few highlights around the face helps illuminate without a lot of upkeep.” You’re in control here. Highlights don’t have to be dramatic or allover to enhance your base color. Even the darkest brunettes can stay brunette and add subtle or statement sparks around the face to soften the dark frame. Those who want more of a statement look can dial up the brightness and contrast.

spinner image Gayle King, Michelle Pfeiffer and Janet McTeer
(Left to right) Gayle King, Michelle Pfeiffer and Janet McTeer
Arturo Holmes/WireImage; Steve Granitz/WireImage; Bruce Glikas/WireImage

7. Highlight for your hairstyle and part

Though varying your part (from left to right or off-center, for example) can add lift at the crown or hairline, it also affects the placement and visibility of your highlights. So can wearing your hair pulled back or up instead of down, air-drying for waves and texture instead of blow-drying smooth, or a complete change of hairstyle — like going from long to a bob, a side-part lob to bangs or blunt cut to layers. You don’t want to pay for color and then have it cut off. Working on your actual haircut gives the colorist a better idea of where highlights should go. Most salons schedule color first on dry hair, and then cut on wet hair. While it speeds their day, it’s not in your highlights’ best interest if you’re making a style change. Speak up and do it your way.

spinner image A hair dresser applying highlights to a customer sitting in a chair in front of a mirror
Goads Agency/E+/Getty Images

8. Go to the salon with “dirty” hair

Not kidding! Color holds better on second- or even third-day hair instead of clean; the natural oils provide a subtle protective layer to the chemicals being applied. But don’t go to the salon with obviously greasy, overly oily or sweaty hair, and avoid packing on the styling products on days you plan to get highlights. Colorists tell clients to wait 48 to 72 hours after getting color to give highlights time to set before washing their hair. Plan accordingly.

spinner image Christie Brinkley, Glenn Close and Kathy Ireland with various highlights
(Left to right) Christie Brinkley, Glenn Close and Kathy Ireland
Bruce Glikas/WireImage; Samir Hussein/WireImage; Michael Tran/Getty Images

9. Make a trip to a salon, if possible

The new online highlight kits have come a long way from the boxed drugstore versions with pull-through hooks and caps. But even updated and upgraded DIY streaks are not nearly as easy as at-home allover color ... even with videos, online chats and customer service that walk you through. Let’s be realistic. Highlights are bleach, and if you’re dealing with mature hair that’s already color-treated, graying, thinning, dry or damaged, things can get very dicey fast. Only trained, experienced salon colorists can truly assess your hair’s ability to safely take on color over color or get the application and placement of highlights right. I encourage you to at least have an in-person consultation with a salon colorist if you opt for a kit. For those brave souls willing to give kits a go, realize they’re most goof-proof on virgin hair or a light blonde base color.

spinner image John Frieda Blue Crush for Brunettes Blue Shampoo; Matrix Total Results So Silver Purple Shampoo for Blonde Hair; L’Oréal EverPure Sulfate-Free Bond Strengthening Shampoo
(Left to right) John Frieda Blue Crush for Brunettes Blue Shampoo; Matrix Total Results So Silver Purple Shampoo for Blonde Hair; L’Oréal EverPure Sulfate-Free Bond Strengthening Shampoo
Target; Ulta Beauty (2)

10. Be prepared to swap in extra-care products

Highlighted hair is fragile, porous and dry, and prone to breakage or frizz, so be sure to pamper it. Rotate between protein-boosting, moisturizing and color-depositing shampoos to strengthen, super hydrate and banish brassiness or fading “lights,” and then supplement regular conditioning with leave-ins or a weekly mask. Shampoo no more than two or three times a week and reduce heat styling by skipping flat or curling irons and applying a heat protectant prior to every blow-dry. When it comes to restoring highlights, use a blue-tinted shampoo like John Frieda Blue Crush for Brunettes Blue Shampoo ($10, to neutralize brassy orange tones on darker hair, a purple one like Matrix Total Results So Silver Purple Shampoo for Blonde Hair ($20, to brighten fading lights on blonde or gray hair, or a protein enhancer like L’Oréal EverPure Sulfate-Free Bond Strengthening Shampoo ($8, for keeping damage at bay.

Lois Joy Johnson is a beauty and style editor who focuses on women 50 and older. She was the beauty and style editor at Ladies’ Home Journal and a founding editor of More magazine. She has written three books: The Makeup Wakeup, The Wardrobe Wakeup and The Woman's Wakeup.

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