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Hair Colors: What's the Difference Between Ombre and Balayage?

Curious about ombre and bayalage? We can help. Here's the difference between ombre and bayalage hair color techniques

woman with curly dyed hair against natural outdoors background

Ombre vs Bayalage — Learn the difference

Do you know what the word “balayage” means? If you follow beauty fads, you probably come across the term quite frequently.

Most balayage discourses mention ombré, too. Touted as hair game-changers, balayage and ombré are often described as highlights—but better. These days, you can get the subtle and sunkissed look at your favorite salon or, if you're feeling ambitious, with a home hair dye kit.

Before you request a balayage or ombré hair treatment from your colorist, though, it’s worth educating yourself. These words aren’t synonymous, even though it may seem so.

Once and for all: What’s the difference between ombré and balayage? Here’s everything you need to know about both hair trends.

What Is Balayage?

Balayage is a French word that means “to paint” or “to sweep.” When applied to hair coloring, the word refers to a product application technique that mimics natural-looking highlights. If you’re wondering what natural highlights look like, think of children and surfers, with their untreated and sun-bleached hair.

First things first: no foil. Most of us equate hair coloring to bleach, foil and long hours sitting on a salon chair—not with balayage. A simple balayage not only does not use foil but can take less than an hour to do.

Hair dye or lightener is swept along the hair surface, hand-painted by the colorist. The product should not be used evenly, root to tip, on the sectioned hair. It should be lightly applied and away from the scalp at the start, with the application getting heavier and using more products as the colorist moves further away from your hair roots.

The result of this technique should be a gradual shift from your natural hair color at the roots to the lightest hair color at the ends. The underside of your hair should also remain darker than the treated parts. Balayage can also have a visual volumizing effect on thin hair.

What Is Foilayage?

Is balayage always foil-free? Not always. To achieve a fuller and more lifted effect, a balayage treatment may necessitate a little bit of foil wrapping. This hybrid process is sometimes called “foilayage” and is typically done with dark hair.

In balayage, the hand-painted product on hair is exposed to the air, leading to faster oxidation and subtler lightening. However, dark hair is extra stubborn. Instead of using stronger bleach to achieve lightness, some colorists opt to use foil on hair sections that need to turn out super light.

What Is Ombré?

Like balayage, ombré is also a French word. Most sources point to it meaning “shadow” or “shade” when taken as a noun. As an adjective, though, it describes color gradation from light to dark.

In hair coloring, it refers to that same effect. An ombré treatment features two distinct colors and a dramatic but seamless transition between the shades. Unlike balayage, which uses smaller hair sectioning and hand-painted product blending down heavier, ombré treatments usually start with larger sections with full product saturation blending up lighter.

Ombré can be subtle or bold. While most prefer to use their natural hair color as one of the two main shades for easy maintenance, you can opt to use two dye colors. You may also work on color gradation that moves from your natural shade to an unnatural one, like blonde to pink or blue.

No discussion on ombré is complete without mentioning sombré and two-tone hair. The former is a subdued version of ombré that relies on the two colors being closer to each other. Less contrast means a softer, more natural look—similar, in fact, to what you might expect from a balayage treatment.

What Is Dip-Dye?

If sombré is softer than ombré, two-tone hair is the opposite—when your hair is two colors with no gradual shift in between. This style is most often achieved through dip-dyeing, which is easily done with an at-home hair color. Some people may confuse a dip-dyed hairstyle with an ombré one, but two-tone hair is seldom the goal of someone wanting an ombré look.

It may sound like the treatment consists of dipping hair into a dye, but this is not often the case. For brighter or unnatural colors, bleaching your hair ends first and using foil may be necessary.

What's the Difference Between Balayage and Ombré?

We’ve gone through the definitions—even explored related terms like dip-dye, sombré and foilayage—and now it’s time to answer the pressing question.

Balayage refers to how to achieve the desired look, while ombré refers to the look itself. Technically, you can go to your colorist and say: “I want a low-maintenance ombré look using the balayage treatment.”

The main difference is that balayage is a technique, while ombré is a hair finish. Worth noting here that you can use balayage to get a wild-looking, multi-shade hairstyle that looks nothing like an ombré. You can also achieve ombré hair without using the sweeping, hand-painted technique.

Resources—Byrdie, Marie Claire, Matrix, Redken