After a year plus of box dyeing our roots and giving ourselves manicures, it feels especially nice to get back to salons and be pampered by the pros once again. This is especially true when you’re considering an overall change to your hair color (i.e. the ever-trendy balayage or ombré hair). But before you make your next appointment, let’s do a quick refresh on some basic hair color terminology—more specifically, the differences between the aforementioned balayage vs ombré—because it’s been a while.

What is balayage?

Pronounced “bah-lay-aghe,” it’s a French term that means “to sweep,” as a nod to the way the color is applied to the hair in sweeping, paint-like strokes. A well-done balayage yields soft, natural-looking color that gives off more of a sun-kissed effect than a streaky one.

It’s achieved through a freehand application (which typically doesn’t require foils though some stylists incorporate them for more drastic results). Because of the application, the transition between darker and lighter sections of hair is much more seamless and blended throughout, making it a popular choice for many given its versatility and how easy it is to maintain.

What is ombré?

Keeping with our mini French lesson, ombré loosely translates to “having colors or tones that shade into each other.” The colors usually go from darkest at the roots to lightest at the ends, but the overall effect is a bit bolder than balayage because of the way the color is applied and processed. That said, ombré can still look subtle (especially compared to some of the overtly two-toned or dip-dyed looks you may recall from the mid-2000s).

When done correctly, the color should have a smooth, gradient transition without a stark line of demarcation between the dark and light portions. As new hair grows in, your roots will stay dark, and your ends will gradually become lighter, as they’re exposed to more sun.

Balayage vs Ombré: What is the difference?

For starters, balayage is a technique, whereas ombré is a style. That said, balayage can be used to create an ombré effect. And while both will yield a dimensional blend of darker and lighter tones, the key difference is that balayage usually starts closer to the roots, so you get more of an all-over brightening effect, whereas with ombré the roots remain virtually untouched, so it looks like an intentionally grown out hair color.

And remember: A picture is worth a thousand words. For best results, always come prepared with photos to show your stylist exactly what you want vs. just telling them with words. Your idea of “some subtle balayage” could be very different from your stylist’s—and vice versa.

How do the costs of balayage and ombré generally compare?

The cost of both services depend on a variety of factors including the length of your hair, the current state of your hair (is it virgin or processed), if you’ll need any additional services (like bleaching some areas to remove existing color or adding a treatment like Olaplex) and where you're having it done (that trendy salon with a huge Insta following will likely cost more—as will an appointment with their “master” or “senior” stylist).

To give you a ballpark range, in metropolitan cities like New York or Los Angeles, you can expect to pay anywhere between $150-400 depending on the above factors and if you’re getting partial or full color.

It’s a costly investment, for sure, so if you’re still on the fence, we’d recommend asking for a consultation before fully committing. During your consultation, you can share inspiration photos of the look you’d like to achieve and ask your stylist some questions to give you a better sense of how much time and money this will cost you like “how many appointments will it require to get this color safely?” and “what does upkeep look like?”

Depending on how much you’re changing your natural hair color, it could determine how many visits you’ll need to safely achieve the final look. For example, if you have dark brown or black hair and want to lift your natural color to lighter shades of brown and blonde, your stylist may recommend spacing the color out over a couple of visits to maintain the health of your hair as much as possible. Better to start slowly and gradually lighten than rush through the process and end up with brassy results—or worse—breakage.

The good news is that both balayage and ombré are relatively low maintenance (especially compared to traditional highlights) since the color placement is more fluid. Though your upfront cost might be higher, you’ll be able to stretch more time between appointments (which is anywhere between 4 to 6 months for most people, though some go an entire year).

Tips to maintain balayage and ombré hair

To keep your color vibrant, most stylists recommend coming in every couple of months for a quick gloss or hairline touchup to maintain your desired tone and brightness. Again, this comes down to personal preference and budget; if you don’t mind a little grow out or can’t afford these maintenance visits, you can still keep your color fresh by using a hydrating hair mask and a purple shampoo once a week to nix any brassy tones. Bonus points if you add in a nourishing hair oil for your ends since they tend to get drier faster.

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