Do Your Highlights Look Real?

The do's and don'ts of highlights

Highlight envy goes something like this: Without thinking, you find yourself checking out the woman walking by whose hair catches the light in a way that makes it look gorgeous. Highlights can be magical and make a stunning impression. But unlike a simple color change, highlights can be tricky and require careful attention to your hair's shade and tone.

Successful highlights also depend on your hair's health and texture, the amount of time the chemicals stay on and the number of highlights you want. We asked two veteran New York colorists, Valerie Ahms of Arté Salon and Carmen Rossi of Kim Lépine Salon, to give us their must-have advice on the best way to achieve that chic, head-turning highlighted coif, whether at home or in the salon.


Getting Highlights at Home

Most stylists agree that giving your hair an allover dye job at home is much easier than giving yourself highlights. So just because you're good at at-home color doesn't mean you'll be successful at giving yourself highlights. In fact, highlights can be so tricky, most suggest you get them done in a salon. (Commonly, at-home highlights can be too yellowy or bleached-out looking.) Nevertheless, if you choose to try highlights at home, follow this advice:

  • Before you start, use a good conditioner so you don't overprocess your ends.
  • Make sure you always leave highlight solution on for a shorter, rather than longer, amount of time, says Carmen. Keeping the chemicals on your hair too long can damage your hair. Thirty minutes is a good measure, she says, but follow the instructions on the box.
  • Have a good friend help you apply the color so you get an even look front and back.
  • Make sure the bleaching chemicals are the right consistency. If it's too thin, the bleach runs and you won't be able to control where you paint the highlights. If it's too thick, the bleach won't apply well or spread where you need it to.
  • Curly hair is a bit more challenging. To see what you're doing, try blowing out curly hair at home before you start highlighting to make it easier. It's easy to goof with curly hair, either by applying highlights of uneven thicknesses or by only doing the top and missing lower layers.
  • Be sure to use the right product, and always stay one or two shades lighter than your natural color. If you stay lighter, the end result will often look better and if necessary, can be more easily corrected.


Getting Highlights in a Salon

Both stylists agree that because highlights are a challenge, salon highlights, if affordable, should be your first choice. There are other good reasons to get salon highlights: if you are pregnant, have chemically treated your hair or have black hair and want to go blonde.

  • If you have really dark hair, your colorist can avoid the pitfalls of in-between-orange shades. After she bleaches the hair, she can add the right toner so the highlights blend better with your natural hair, but also better match your skin tone.
  • If you have a perm or you straighten your hair, your hair is extra porous and will absorb color unevenly. In that case, your colorist may use a semipermanent color. If you've had a chemical process recently, both experts agree to wait one to two weeks before coloring your hair.
  • "If you're pregnant, semipermanent color is gentler and might be a better way to go," Carmen says. Unlike permanent color, semipermanent shades won't lift your hair color to blonde, but will give you a nice enhanced hue. At the same time, you'll get body and extra shine.
  • Get your hair cut first, especially if you've got layers or you're changing your style. When Valerie applies highlights, she likes to follow the lines of the cut, and points out that highlights should always enhance your hairstyle.
  • Ask your colorist for advice and suggestions. For example, Valerie says, "With longer hair, I usually apply highlights so the hair doesn't have one solid flat-looking color." But if you've got a shorter cut, she may suggest just painting the tips with a bit of bleach for a soft, feminine look. She might have a different strategy for an older woman who wants very subtle highlights or is covering gray.
  • Ask about lowlights, which are slightly darker shades that add contrast to your overall color. If over time your highlights have taken over and have blended too much, Valerie says you might want to add some lowlights for more contrast.
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