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Balayage vs. Foils: The Colorist's Ultimate Guide to Highlighting


Balayage and foil coloring techniques are both used to create gorgeous highlights, but each has distinct advantages and disadvantages that are less obvious. We’re breaking down the differences between these two approaches to color!

Balayage (Freehand)

The Look

Balayage, which means “to sweep” in French, is a freehand painting method that avoids the structured look of foils and produces a softer, more natural result. Color is focused around the middle and end of the hair shaft. Use this technique to achieve a wide range of looks—it’s the basis of trendy styles such as ombres and colormelts.

Explain to clients that balayage will not produce a drastic color change; dark-haired clients or those looking for more than four levels of lift in a sitting are better approached with foils.

The Process

Hair is painted by hand and processed in the open air or between cellophane—no foil here!

The artistry of balayage can be intimidating but provides stunning results when properly executed. It’s a free-form approach, no two looks are the same, so if a client likes the look, they’re likely to keep coming back.

As a premium service, balayage can bring in additional revenue and serve as a market differentiator, since it requires different training; on top of artistry, balayage demands a technical understanding of the processing. The tools and products can also be more costly, so charging 20 to 30% more than traditional foils is recommended, according to balayage expert, Eva Scrivo.

Depending on the client’s hair and the requested look, balayage can also take less time, making this a service that can quickly add to the bottom line.

The Maintenance

Because the change in color is more subtle than foils, balayage is an excellent option for clients looking for low-maintenance, gentle hair color.


The Look

Foils produce a much more uniform and symmetrical highlighting effect. Color is evenly distributed and, unlike balayage, consistent from root to tip. As a result, highlights done with foils are more obvious than those produced with balayage and can sometimes give an unnatural or “stripey” look.

The Process

Hair is sectioned off in patterns and painted from root to tip. Aluminum sheets separate layers to isolate color and serve as a heat conductor to enhance the lightener.

Of course, many stylists like foiling for the precision. It is also the method of choice for a more drastic color change.

Foils are a more accessible service, so they’re offered at a lower price point than balayage. Foil highlights are an introductory service that could get a client hooked on lighter hair, allowing for a transition to balayage when they're ready.

The Maintenance

Lines of demarcation are more visible when growing out a foil highlight, so it’s a higher-maintenance style that requires frequent salon visits.

Balayage and foils can both be used to achieve stunning highlights, but each technique is distinctly different. Balayage gives a more natural look and, as a premium service, can bring in more revenue. Foils yield greater consistency, but take more time and cost less than balayage.

In some cases, the best approach may be a combination of the two methods—techniques such as American tailoring or foilyage can create a unique look that combines the best of both approaches.

Interested in learning about the latest in color? Improve your skills with Davines’ Bleach and Tone class utilizing their Century of Light line!

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