Balayage vs Highlights vs Lowlights vs Sombre vs AirTouch Highlights vs Babylights vs Ombre vs Sombre: Do you know the Differences?

Published on Aug 27, 2017

While a hairdo coloured in a single solid shade continues to have its appeal, there are more and more new colouring techniques where different hues blend together in harmony. With so many different techniques out there, things can get confusing - What are those streaks called which are darker than the rest of your hair? What do you tell your stylist when you want your locks to go from dusky at the roots to light at the tips? And which of these options are best for you? 

Here's a quick rundown of various contemporary colouring techniques and styles out there so you can pick your perfect one.

1. Foil Highlights

Short hair brown highlights by Flamingo Japanese Hair Studio

Highlights by Flamingo Hair Studio @ Tanjong Pagar

Highlights - or lightening certain streaks of hair more than others - have been in existence since at least the 4th Century BC, with the ancient Greeks using olive oil, pollen, gold flakes and lots of sunlight to try to fade the colour on part of their tresses. Thousands of years later, highlights continue adding interest, dimension and movement to tresses.

Haircut and Long hair brown highlight by Preston at MODE Studio

Highlights by MODE Studio

The modern practice of foil highlighting - or wrapping select shocks of hair in foil after applying colour to separate them from the rest of the darker tresses - only became mainstream in the 1980s. And while it's now the most standard method, foil highlighting can still produce plenty of variations, with the lightness of the streaks as well as the placement and thickness of each lightened lock left up to your preference and the colourist's expertise.

But while being a classic, foil highlights also come with certain considerations - As they generally begin from the roots of your hair, you might feel like you have to go for regular touch-ups to avoid the harsh lines that come with root regrowth.

Dark Purple Highlights by Art Noise Japanese Hair Salon

Dark Purple Highlights by Art Noise Japanese Hair Salon @ Holland Village

Also, the choice of colour for your highlights, as well as your stylist's skill, are important for achieving a beautiful blend. Overly-contrasting streaks can lead to a stripey look that's extremely nineties.

Which is awesome if that's the look you're going for, but '90s style stripey highlights do need extra TLC to make sure the lines fall properly.

Soft and natural stripe highlights by Be Salon

Be Salon @ Millenia Walk

For more manageable highlights, choose a shade based on your base colour and your complexion.

Multi-coloured highlights by No. 8 Studio

Multi-Coloured Highlights by No. 8 Hair Studio @ Chinese Garden Jurong

While you can change up the exact hue and pick from browns or purples or even more surprising ones like greens, try not to go 3 shades lighter than your base colour.

Haircut and highlights by Kenaris Salon

Highlights and Cut by Kenaris Salon @ Wheelock Place

Pale gold highlights on blonde hair are a lasting favourite for an all-American look, which is appropriate considering foil highlights originated in the USA.

Foil Lowlights

On the other hand, lowlights involve darkening locks of hair so that they're a deeper shade than your base colour. This too can add texture and movement to your do, is a fantastic way to disguise greys without colouring your whole head, and often doesn't have to involve bleach. And while highlights can be quite a bit lighter than your base shade, lowlights are meant to blend quite seamlessly, meaning lower maintenance - you’ll need touch-ups every two to four months versus the standard six to eight weeks for highlights).

Brown highlights and lowlights by Aube Japanese Hair Salon

Highlights + Lowlights by Aube Japanese Hair Salon @ Wheelock Place

In Asia though, it's less common to use purely lowlights since most of us already have naturally dark hair that is difficult to darken further. Instead, what you might see is hair that has been highlighted to different degrees, to simulate having both highlights and lowlights. The combo of both these colouring techniques adds volume, fullness and complexity to a 'do.

Highlights and lowlights for long hair by Art Noise Japanese Hair Salon

Highlights and Lowlights by Art Noise Japanese Hair Salon @ Holland Village

Another great use for lowlights is to add some depth and sophistication back to over-lightened hair. 

Straight hair Lowlights by Aube Japanese Hair Salon

Lowlights by AUBE Japanese Hair Salon

Having both highlights and lowlights also produces a more natural effect, for people who are worried that lightening your coiff will make it look cartoonishly bright.  

Shoulder length rose brown lowlights by COVO Japanese Hair Salon

Rose Brown with Lowlights by COVO Japanese Hair Salon @ Tanjong Pagar

The highlights/lowlights combination continues to be a favourite on Hollywood hair, as seen on actors such as Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry.

Foil Babylights

Brown babylights by Izumi Japanese Hair Salon

Babylights from Izumi Salon

Now that we've covered the highs and lows, it's time to talk about babylights. Instead of streaks, these highlight very fine sections of hair at a time- espeially arouind your hairline and natural parting -  with a gradation of colour that is lighter at the ends. Done well, these call to mind the tresses of a young child that have been naturally lightened by the sun - hence the term babylights.

Short hair babylights by Picasso Hair Studio

Babylights by Picasso Hair Studio @ Bugis & Tanjong Pagar

Babylights are extremely low-maintenance. Since the highlighted areas are so fine and delicate instead of being in more obvious stripes, the grow-out is soft and subtle. In general, babylights are a style that boast understated class.

Short hair babylights by Chez Vous Hair Salon

Babylights by Chez Vous Hair Salon @ Ngee Ann City

Babylights tend to take much more time and effort to create, since the highlighted sections have to be very small but regularly recurring so as to be diffused throughout the base colour. This means that they may cost more than foil highlights, although this does vary between salons.

Babylights at Tampines Color Bar

Babylights by Color Bar by Full House @ Tampines

Balayage Highlights

'Balayage' is French for sweep, or paint, and true to its title, this France-born colouring method has your stylist use a brush to paint colour on swatches of hair before covering them with cellophane.

Blonde balayage by Be Salon

Be Salon @ Millenia Walk

It's a freehand technique that when done well, doesn't leave the more solid lines of demarcation that traditional highlights would have. This means that the overall effect is more organic.

Brown balayage

Chez Vous Hair Salon @ Ngee Ann City

The natural vibe is further enhanced by the fact that in balayage, the lightening doesn't begin at the crown of your head. This also means that balayage grows out rather beautifully and you won't need regular touch-ups.

Brown balayage

Balayage by Kenaris Salon @ Wheelock Place

Since the lighter colours are painted on, the enhanced areas also tend to be fatter and less symmetrical than your usual highlights, which again means your dye-job is less likely to look manufactured.

We love how balayages lend themselves to neutral browns...

Red-brown balayage by Kemistry hair salon

Kemistry Hair Salon @ Scotts Square well as all sorts of more vibrant colours. 

Grey balayage

Grey Balayage by Color Bar by Full House @ Tampines

Red Pink balayage by Danson at 99 Percent Hair Studio

Balayage Pink by 99 Percent Hair Studio

Anime inspired Pink Balayage by COVO Japanese Hair Salon

Pink Balayage by  Finder by COVO @ Duxton

Also, remember that while Balayages are supposed to look most mesmerising on long hair (which gives stylists a larger canvas to paint on), skillful stylists can produce equally enchanting effects on shorter crops.

Brown balayage

Balayage brown/blonde by Shobu at Finder by COVO @ Duxton


Ombre is when your hair grows gradually lighter from the crown to the hair ends. The great thing about this is that unless you specifically want to change the colour of your whole mop, bleach is only strictly required on the lower portion of your tresses, meaning less processing time and hair damage.

Ash purple ombre by Bump Hair Design

Bump Hair Design @ Rochester

The bleach and colours are - like in balayage-  painted on using a brush, so that there won't be a starkly defined border between the darker and lighter zones. 

Brown ombre

Ombre by Threes Japanese Hair Salon

Since this style calls for deeper-hued roots, brunettes can wait for a good long time before having to make their next salon appointment. Do note though that if you are adding a more vibrant colour to the bleached area, that might require more regular touchups, though these can be minimised by using a colour depositing shampoo.

Brown ombre before and after at Flamingo Hair Studio

Ombre by Flamingo Hair Studio @ Tanjong Pagar

In the above picture, the model's bright ash hue on the bottom of her locks faded after two weeks from the colouring date, but Flamingo Hair Studio used Paimore Spectrum Ash Shampoo to restore a vivid contrast. 

While Ombre is suitable for various hair types, the effect produced on straight hair is pretty different from on wavy locks or curls. On the latter, the spirals break up the dark-to-light transition so that it could translate more easily as natural and sun-bleached. With straight tresses, though, that transition looks structural and intentional, which is arresting in a very different way.

Ash-blonde ombre perfect for wavy hair or curls

Bump Hair Design @ Rochester

Medium hair ombre

Ombre by Kiyo from COVO Japanese Hair Salon @ Outram Park


Long hair sombre

Sombre Hair Colour by Branche Hair Salon @ City Hall

Sombre is the softer, subtler edition of ombre, using mainly colours closest to the base shade to effect a very gentle gradient of colour and a maximally natural, sun-kissed vibe.

Brown sombre by Chez Vous Hair Salon

Chez Vous Hair Salon @ Ngee Ann City

If you love your natural hair colour and simply want to enhance it with some texture and detail, the subtle sombre could be a fantastic fit. 

Sombre by Threes Japanese Hair Salon

Sombre by Threes Japanese Hair Salon

Ecaille / Tortoiseshell 

Ecaille or Tortoiseshell Colouring is a fusion of Ombre (which has more visibly contrasting shades especially at the hair ends), with the very unhurried and organic gradations of sombre.

Ecaille or Tortoiseshell colouring by Chez Vous

Tortoiseshell by Chez Vous Hair Salon @ Ngee Ann City

It basically deploys numerous vivid hues but fuses them in a Sombre's soft, natural progression, and has been seen on the locks of Jessica Alba, Giselle Bundchen and Hannah Quinlivan.

Tortoiseshell hair colour by MODE Studio

Tortoiseshell at MODE Studio

The key is choosing rich colours and picking a colourist with excellent blending technique.

Ecaille hair colour at MODE Studio

Ecaille at MODE Studio

AirTouch Highlights

Want a blend of hues even more natural-looking and understated than any of the above? Try AirTouch Highlights, created by Moscow hair guru Vladimir Sarbashev. He pioneered this by using air from a quality blow-dryer to gently push shorter hairs and internal layers down and out of the way, so that only the needed strands - usually virgin outgrowth that really needs that retouch - remain, after which the colorist can apply color or lightener to it. The gentle diffusion of dyed strands using air means that that the base colour and the lightened sections blend together seamlessly.

Airtouch highlights by Fluxus House

AirTouch highlights from Fluxus House Japanese Salon @ Outram Park

The colour mix is so natural that the growout is unprecedentedly graceful, and you can procrastinate forever before going back to the salon. 

Airtouch highlights by Fluxus House

AirTouch highlights from Fluxus House Japanese Salon @ Outram Park

When you do return for a touchup, the same air-blowing technique effectively separates the weaker, already-lightened strands from the virgin filaments that need more colouring. In general, AirTouch highlights are a good choice for people who have damaged hair, because the air naturally pushes more brittle, breakable strands out of the way.

Airtouch highlights by Ravissant Hair Salon

AirTouch highlights from Ravissant Hair Studio

Check out Agent N's visit to Ravissant Hair Studio to get a lowdown on the entire AirTouch process.

Now that you are up-to-date on the various colouring techniques, which one will we see you wearing next? Tell us your thoughts, or get even more hair inspiration at

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