Hair Styles Illustrated

Ombre, Sombre & Balayage: Decoding the Language of Hair Color

As you walk through a salon today, you’re sure to hear words like ombre, sombre and balayage floating around. These words can feel confusing and intimidating—but they don’t have to be.


While the names might be hard to spell and even harder to pronounce, knowing what they mean and how they look will help you get the hair color you want. Get out the flash cards, it’s time to study up on these color techniques.

Illustration of highlights

Keywords: bright, light, intense

Say it: \ˈhī-ˌlīt\

Highlights provide intense color lightening to the top of the head and around the face. Instead of dying all your hair, lightener is applied to thick or thin sections of the outer layer.


A little goes a long way. Just a few highlights applied around the face can brighten your face and change your look. Go bold by adding more sections. A natural look is created with thin sections, while thicker segments boost the contrast for a funky, playful result.


Using a weaving technique, sections of hair are separated, lightener is applied and hair wrapped in foil to protect the rest of the hair. Multiple colors can be used for color variation; the more sections treated, the greater the impact.

Illustration of babylights

Keywords: soft, delicate, fine

Say it: \ˈbā-bē\


Babylights are a very precise color technique designed to mimic the natural color of baby hair. It’s a subtle way to brighten your look without making a dramatic change to your hair.


Much like traditional highlights, babylights are done with foils and lightener, but the sections used are much smaller, there’s less separation between foils and the hair texture needs to be very fine. The subtle dimension is created by scattering foils along the hairline, and sometimes adding a few around the crown for a fuller effect. It works in all hair colors, but fine texture is key for the face-framing look.

Illustration of ombre

Keywords: trendy, contrast, intense

Say it: om-bray or ohm-bray

Ombre is a French term meaning "shaded," which describes the technique's dark to light coloring. An effective color treatment for all shades of hair, even the darkest browns and blacks can beautifully transition into light ends. Like balayage, ombre grows out naturally without showing roots, and needs little to no color upkeep.


The dip-dyed look starts with a dark tone at the roots that melts into a medium and then becomes very light at the ends. Even with naturally dark hair, the ends are typically very blonde.


With ombre coloring, two or more shades applied from root to tip, creating a look that transitions from light to dark. It begins with the natural root color or a darker shade, then layering in gradually lighter shades at midshaft and very blonde shades at the tips.

Illustration of sombre

Keywords: dimensional, blended, soft

Say it: som-bray or sohm-bray

Also known also as a "soft" or "subtle" ombré, the sombre is less dramatic than the classic ombre.


The color still transitions from dark to light like an ombre, but with softer shades that are closer to the root color for a more natural look.


The ombre color technique is used, but with less dramatic colors. Starting with a natural or close to natural color at the roots, the shade gently transitions lighter, with the lightest shade at the tips.

Illustration of balayage

Keywords: natural, sun-kissed, sweeping


Balayage is similar to traditional highlights in that color is applied to a section from root to tip, but the final result is blended and natural. It has a sun-kissed look that mimics the effect of having spent a week at the beach. A low-commitment change to your natural color, balayage grows out without exposing roots or leaving color lines.


With balayage, light and dark shades are applied to the full length of the hair with careful placement and lots of blending, for a dynamic, multifaceted look.


Meaning “to sweep” or “to paint,” balayage is a French word that describes how light and dark colors are applied freehand, often to just the outer section of the hair without fully saturating it. The process doesn't use foils or a cap; instead the stylist chooses the placement based on face shape and desired lightness.

(Illustrations: Ashley Mary - @ashleymaryart)     
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