Considering lightening your hair but not quite sure what to even ask for? To be fair, there’s a lot of terminology out there around hair color, but before we even touch the balayage and sombré of it all, let’s take it back to the basics. More specifically, let’s talk about the difference between partial highlights and full highlights.

Here to help us are Harry Josh, a celebrity hairstylist and creator of Harry Josh Pro Tools and Sabit Hantal, hairstylist and founder of SH Fifth Avenue Salon in New York.

Let’s assume we’re all total beginners here. What are highlights?

“Highlights are a hair coloring technique that lighten pieces of hair without having to do a single process,” explains Josh. “You can either get a full head of highlights, partially covered to bring out some color, or brushed in (aka balayage) highlights to add color and dimension to hair.”

“There are many different techniques to lightening hair, but for traditional highlights, you separate sections and bleach them using foils,” adds Hantal. “Beyond this, there are many other techniques that are practiced in salons like ombré, where you tease and lighten just the ends of your hair, balayage, where the bleach is hand painted onto strands, or some combination of the styles like balayage and ombré, where the color is hand painted on with the hair progressively getting lighter at the ends.”

What are partial highlights?

Partial highlights are just that—partial—as in, only a certain “part” of the hair is done. Sometimes it’s just brightening up the front pieces, or it can involve the entire top half of the head,” explains Hantal, who adds that many stylists offer different options based on what their client wants.

“Traditional partial highlighting means lightening a half head of hair, where you are only lightening sections on top half of the head. People that prefer this are usually looking for a subtle difference in their hair and low maintenance afterwards,” adds Hantal.

Another popular request is for partial face-framing highlights, which involve adding “a few pieces of color near the front of your head to add dimension and brighten up your face.”

What are full highlights?

“Full highlights involve highlighting every section of the hair, which creates a more dramatic color change overall,” explains Josh. (See Kate Bosworth above.)

This can simply have a brightening effect on your natural hair color (think dirty blonde to a sunny bright blonde) or have a more dramatic effect if, for example, you’re a natural brunette getting a head full of lighter brown and blonde highlights, which will change your color completely.

Partial vs. full highlights: What are the benefits of getting one over the other?

When deciding between the two, Josh advises you to consider the impact you want to have. “Partial highlights are designed to enhance or subtly pop an existing color, while full highlights will give you a full transformation. It’s the difference between Gwyneth, who has full highlights, and Gisele, who has partial highlights.”

“Partial highlights are also a great way to take ordinary brunette shades and make them extraordinary by adding a few strategically placed brighter pieces, and, for women who cover their greys constantly, it can help disguise a solid line of regrowth without having to dye your hair completely,” adds Josh.

Hantal shares some additional points to consider when deciding between partial and full highlights:

  • Cost: Getting half the highlights is usually cheaper upfront, but it may require more visits to upkeep in the long run. For example, if you’re getting full highlights and only coming into the salon once to twice a year, that can end up being more cost effective.
  • Hair health: Partial highlights are healthier for the hair because you are only lightening some of the hair and, in subsequent visits, you’re typically just applying bleach to the regrowth (where the new roots are coming in) so you aren’t touching previously lightened parts of hair repeatedly (which is what causes damage over time).
  • Maintenance: Partial highlights aren’t as drastic as full ones so the grow out will be less visible.
  • Styling: Think about how you most often wear your hair. Is it pulled back into a ponytail? Or do you wear it half-up, half-down? Do you have bangs? This will play an important factor in deciding between partial or full highlights since you don’t want to have an uneven placement of color.

Still on the fence about which kind of highlights to get? Here are five ideas that showcase different ways to get partial highlights.

1. Sombré Highlights

Lily Aldridge shows us what a few baby-fine highlights can do to brighten up your face and give brunette strands shiny dimension.

2. Balayage Ombré

For a slightly more noticeable change, try a blend of balayage highlights, concentrating the color on the ends and in the front to gently frame your face with brighter tones. This is a low maintenance way for those with dark hair to lighten things up.

3. Tonal Babylights

The key to getting the most natural-looking color is to weave in super-fine highlights in shades that are close to your base color (so no more than two shades lighter). Not only will this make your hair look fuller, but the grow out is seamless as well.

4. Reflective Highlights

Again, here’s a great example of very fine highlights that are placed sparingly and aren’t drastically different from the base color. You get the subtle brightening effect and shine, which gives darker hair dimension and can make it appear healthier.

5. Money Piece Highlights

Aka the ‘90s trend that made its comeback in 2020 and shows no signs of stopping this year. This look is meant to be fun and a bit flashy, so keep the highlights chunky and front and center.

The takeaway

In sum, both partial and full highlights are great options, so when deciding between the two, think about how much change you’re looking for upfront. Partial highlights are much subtler (unless you’re going for the money piece) and can be a safe way to dip your toe into color, whereas full highlights will deliver a more dramatic change.

A final word of advice from Hantal: “If you’re not sure, show your stylist a picture of what you want vs. just telling them what you want. Sometimes people say they want partial highlights, but what they really want is a full head of balayage that is blended very well.”

You know the saying, a picture is worth a thousand words...

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