The Steps You Should Follow Before Getting Highlights

Getting highlights, believe it or not, is a complicated process. Here are the steps you should take before you ever sit in the chair.

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Jen Panaro, the woman behind lifestyle website Honestly Modern, chose the balayage technique because the lack of upkeep worked well with her lifestyle. “After highlighting my hair for a few years in high school, I took a 15-year break from highlights because I didn’t want to commit to the regular appointments and expensive cost,” she says. “Recently, I started having balayage treatments, and I have been so happy with them! Because I only have to get treatments once every six months, it’s much more affordable and takes up much less time. Because it’s not colored near the roots, I can also decide at any time to stop coloring it and let it grow out to my natural color with no concerns.” So, you’re thinking about getting highlights, too. You’ve glanced at Instagram and marveled at the luscious locks, you’ve read stories like Panaro’s to get you extra excited, and you’ve even given thought to a reasonable budget. Now what? Well, there are a few steps you should follow before hitting the salon. We hit the books and talked to professionals to acquire them. Here’s what you need to know:

Step 1: Brush up on what highlights actually entail, then evaluate the current state of your hair.

If you’re totally new to hair dye and highlights in general, here’s a quick primer on how the whole thing works. Hair is mostly made up of keratin, which is a protein also found in your nails and skin. Your natural hair color is determined by two different melanin proteinseumelanin causes dark hair, and phaeomelanin causes blonde and red hair. Hair dyes are little molecules of color designed to reach the thickest layer, or cortex, of the hair. Semi- or demi-permanent dye molecules will eventually get washed out and leave the cortex; permanent hair dye molecules react with the melanin inside the hair cortex, permanently changing the hair’s color. Once the chemicals have been applied to your hair, you must wait a while for the chemicals to do their magic—and yep, sometimes that means hours. While most modern hair dyes are very safe, some people may experience some nasty allergic reactions to them. A common hair dye ingredient called paraphenylenediamine can cause rashes, swelling, welts, and itching in people who are allergic to it. (To test for allergies, your stylist should always do a patch test—that means dabbing a small amount of the dye onto your skin, usually behind your ear or on the inside of your elbow, to see if anything happens within a 24- or 48-hour period.) Before you make changes to your hair color, you should figure out what’s going on with your hair right now. Ask yourself a few questions: Is your hair damaged by heat or color? When was the last time you had it treated? Are you super sensitive to chemicals or dye in general? Are you sure you want to change your hair, or would you be just as happy rocking a fun colored wig on special occasions? If you are already suffering from breakage or seriously dry hair, you should wait until your hair is healthy again and ready to take on color. If you’ve had it colored recently, ask a professional hair stylist how long you should wait before getting more color.

Step 2: Figure out the style you want.

Once you’re confident that your hair can handle some color, it’s time for the fun part: Narrowing down exactly what you want. Paul Cucinello, CEO of members-only salon Cucinello Studio, says you should ask yourself what type of highlights will be most flattering with the texture and base color of your hair. “I always say that highlights should always accentuate and enhance the depth and dimension of a beautiful hair color,” says Cucinello. “They shouldn’t have to be more than a few shades lighter than your existing color. If that’s the case, you might want to consider changing your overall color before you start adding highlights. You can’t decorate the house before you build the foundation.” Social media is a great place to start. On Instagram, browse hashtags like #balayage, #haircolor, #mastersofbalayage, #brunettehighlights, #blondehighlights, and #hairdressermagic, then save your favorite pics to your phone or tear out magazine pages so you can show stylists exactly what you are looking for (and maybe a few examples of what you don’t want, too). While you’re researching, take time to brush up on the lingo. A few key terms you should know: Partial highlights: If you get partial highlights, the stylist won’t put the highlights all over your head, obviously, but just on part of your hair. Typically, partial highlights frame your face. Full highlights: This is when the highlights are done on every section of your head. Foil highlights: During this process, the stylist will take sections of hair, apply the highlighter chemicals to them, and fold them up in pieces of foil until the dye has set in. Balayage: This is a freehand technique where the stylist essentially “paints” your hair with the color rather than using the foil method. Ombré: Ombré is the French word for “shadow.” In the context of hair, it means a look that goes from darker to lighter in color. Lowlights: Lowlights are when you add a darker color to your hair rather than a lighter one. Pintura: Pintura is a specific technique for highlighting curly or textured hair, developed at the DevaChan salon 20 years ago (the salon specializes in curly hair). “[Pintura] literally means ‘to paint,’ and with this technique, colorists apply hues directly onto the hair without the use of foil,” the DevaChan blog explains. “They ‘paint’ this way because it allows more application freedom, as a result colorists are able to individually identify which curls catch the light the best, and highlight them to add more dimension to someone’s individual texture.”

Step 3: Look for a hair stylist who has done this before—and is comfortable working with your hair type.

“If you don’t have a colorist or have never colored your hair before, find someone who has great hair color with highlights and then schedule a consultation with that colorist,” Cucinello recommends. “Bring lots of pictures of what you have in mind, and more important, what you don’t want.” You can also check out salon reviews on Yelp and Google and browse stylists’ Instagram pages to see their previous work. If you have specific concerns, look for relevant reviews and call ahead to the salon. If you have natural hair and want to ensure your stylist has experience with your texture, for example, see if other natural-haired customers have reviewed their services or ask the salon to confirm the stylist’s experience. When you’re researching, don’t forget to consider pricing. The price range will depend on a few things, like what kind of highlights you want, how long your hair is, how experienced your stylist is, and where you are located. At the Bumble and Bumble salon in New York City, partial foil or balayage highlights run $175-$320, and full foil or balayage goes for $225-$375. At Blondes and Blowouts in Dallas, balayage starts at $250. At Edit Salon in Chicago, full highlights start at $150. Highlighting your hair usually isn’t cheap (sadly) so you need to be realistic about your budget. When you call to make your appointment, ask the salon if they have any specific instructions for you. A good general rule of thumb is to show up with clean hair, wearing your usual everyday style. Smadar Nadav, a junior colorist at Devachan, explains: “We ask our clients to come in with their curls down and in their natural state. Since we paint with your curl pattern, the more we can see the curl and definition the better we control where the color lands. We section out the hair before we highlight. Then we paint each curl we want to showcase and bring light to.”

Step 4: Figure out how your appointment is going to go.

Many salons will offer a consultation ahead of the actual appointment. During that consultation, you can patch test the hair dyes and make sure you’re on the same page with your stylist about the final look. You can ask questions about the chemicals in the dye they use, talk through any potential side effects, and work out an aftercare plan. The stylist can also advise you on how long they expect your appointment to take—giving you the option to rethink things if the 8 hours it would take to give you lavender highlights is not your idea of a great time. Though you may have your heart set on a certain style, remember that the stylist is a pro. It’s possible that your dream color might not look great with your skin tone, and you may be better served by a warmer or cooler tone. Listen to their input—this is a great chance to collaborate and use the stylist’s expertise to come up with something that’s perfect for you. “As a colorist, I always have the final result in mind and a color that may look great on one client, might not fit another one,” stylist Giulia Farella from Fabio Scalia Salons explained in a blog post. “Trends come and go, but a great style could last forever. My advice would be to consult with your colorist to find a color that fits your skin tone, haircut, and style in general.” On the day of your appointment, eat beforehand, and make sure to have water and snacks on hand. Some salons, though, offer complimentary snacks and beverages; other places even have a menu you can order from. Wear something comfortable (dark colors are always a safe bet if you’ll be around dye—accidents happen, people!). Chances are you’ll be at the salon for a number of hours, so come prepared with your phone charger and something to keep you occupied. Most salons will offer reading material, but you could bring along crosswords, addictive iPhone games, or even headphones to watch a show or listen to a podcast during times when your stylist isn’t actively working on your hair.

Step 5: Figure out how to care for your hair afterwards.

Your stylist will provide you with specific aftercare instructions, but here are a few general guidelines. In many cases, experts suggest waiting 72 hours before shampooing your hair. And you may need to pick up some specialized shampoos for color-treated hair, as many professionals recommend washing your hair with a sulfate-free shampoo after a color treatment. Sulfates are common in shampoos and cause the product to lather when you add water; however, they can also strip your hair and scalp of natural oils, drying out your hair and making it brittle. Sulfates can also strip your hair color, causing dye to fade fast. Other tips to keep your highlights looking great: Don’t wash your hair too often, as that can cause the color to fade; use cool or lukewarm water when washing your hair because super hot water can leach out the dye; allow your hair to dry naturally as often as possible; when you do need to heat-style your hair, use styling tools on low heat and use a heat-protecting spray or balm on your hair as well. Oh, and if you’re going to be out in the sun, consider throwing on a cap or scarf to protect your color (along with SPF for your skin, of course). “I always tell my clients to give their curls a little extra TLC,” Nadav says. “Leaving in extra conditioner or doing a conditioning treatment is always beneficial after the color has had time to settle … the better your curls are hydrated the better your color will look and last.”

The most important step: Deciding whether this process will work for you.

Highlights can be amazing, but if you do all your research and decide it’s not worth it, there’s no shame in that. “Will the highlights be realistic to maintain based on your budget and lifestyle?” Cucinello asks. “How often will you need to have your highlights retouched? Will you need to do the same amount of highlights every time, and what will the cost be? No one likes surprises when it’s time to pay for their services.” Some people may not have the patience to sit for hours in the salon chair; for others the service just isn’t in the budget; for others still, the aftercare instructions might be a little too high-maintenance. If the highlight world isn’t for you? No big deal. But if it is, gather all the info you need and reap the rewards of your hard work when you walk out with your new look.