Babylights vs. Highlights — What’s the Difference?

The difference may be more subtle than you think.

Babylights vs. Highlights – What's the Difference?

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If there’s one thing people love, it’s to throw around beauty terms like they know what they’re talking about. Whether they saw it on TikTok, overheard it in the salon chair, or just misunderstood what their esthetician was saying, the misinformation is real. Thankfully, we love putting the kibosh on the beauty-version of the game of telephone by clearing the air on well known, but potentially misunderstood beauty terms. So, today, we’re turning our attention to ‘highlights’ and ‘babylights’.

“The two terms are very similar,” says Atlanta-based colorist, Rachel Korman of Tinte Salon. “But babylights are an application style within the method of highlighting.”

Below, we’ve tapped two experts who help us break down the difference between the two coloring techniques and explain when they use each.

What are highlights?

“Highlighting is a treatment that lightens hair to mimic what the sun would do in order to draw attention to certain pieces of hair,” says Korman.

Highlights are always lighter than your base color, and the lightening process is achieved by using an ammonia-based product that draws pigment out of the hair. Decades ago, highlights were applied by first placing a plastic cap with tiny holes spaced evenly across it on the client’s head and then using a metal tool to pull tiny sections of hair through the cap. Now, there is a greater art to the application, with colorists choosing the spacing and which sections to lighten by ‘weaving’ strips of hair to separate them from the rest of the hair and laying those strips on foils before then applying the lightening agent to lift the hair color.

Highlights can be applied in different ways, and colorists categorize highlights with various terms including full highlights, partial highlights, dimensional highlights, babylights, and teezy lights. A full highlight means lightening hair all over the head, while a partial means just doing the front or top portion of the hair while leaving the back alone. Both the application process and someone’s individual preference dictates how long highlights ‘last’ between appointments. Do you want bright color with no roots, or are you ok with a more ‘lived in ‘ look?

What are babylights?

Babylights are super-fine highlights that offer the most natural brightening effect to the hair. Korman says, “Babylights are a more modern way of highlighting hair, and the rule for applying them is that it’s such a thin section of hair that you can read the newspaper through it.”

According to James Corbett, Master Colorist and Founder of James Corbett Studio in New York City, the term came into fashion around 2008 as trends began shifting away from the heavy, chunky highlights of the ‘90s and early aughts. “Babylights give you a subtle melt of light hair that creates an all-over brightness,” he says. Thus babylights offer lightened hair color without ‘stripes’ or obvious sections of lighter pieces.

Babylights are applied with foils, the same way that highlights are applied, just with smaller pieces of hair in each section being lightened. They are also often focused around the hairline, natural part, and even toward the ends of the hair to achieve a natural final look.

Benefits of highlights:

Highlights are used to create dimension and movement to any hair color. They offer a pronounced contrast between darker (often your natural hair color) and lighter hair, and are often a very noticeable change.

“When I’m looking for something more prominent and want the section to stand out, I highlight,” says Corbett. “Highlights can add drama and interest by accentuating the layers of your haircut.”

When applied to curly hair, highlights can make specific curls pop, and highlights are also strategically placed in the hair to accentuate certain facial features, i.e. make your cheekbones pop. Highlights are also used to cover up gray hair.  

Benefits of babylights?

Babylights are used to fully brighten up the hair without having to bleach to a solid blonde all over. By leaving some of the base hair color in between the lightened strands you achieve a more natural color as there is more dimension, and it also offers an easier regrowth process as you don’t have a solid line of ‘outgrowth’ from the root. That dimension also helps add depth and even the illusion of thickness.

“Babylights can give fine hair the appearance of looking thicker due to the dimension it creates,” says Corbett. Korman reiterates that basically all highlights applied on fine hair are in fact, babylights.

Babylights are also regularly used in the front of the hair in conjunction with ‘standard’ highlights for the most natural final product. “Hair should be really blended around the face, so I always typically apply a babylight when I’m framing someone’s face, whereas I place highlights in the back of the head,” Korman says.

How to pick between highlights and babylights:

If you want to recreate the look of a child’s hair lightening up in the summer because of all the time they spend in the sun, you’re probably in the market for babylights. The same goes for people who prefer a more low-maintenance hair color. If you like to squeeze more time in between your hair color appointments, babylights are also likely the right choice as the regrowth isn’t as dramatic since the sections of hair are smaller.

If you are looking for a more dramatic look, you’re probably after highlights. “I was taught the phrase, ‘Do you want to whisper, talk, or shout?’” reflects Corbett on determining what people want from their hair color. Babylights definitely don’t shout, and highlights could never whisper. If you are on a tight budget, that could also come into play: You can often stretch it a few extra weeks between color appointments with babylights, but they are also usually more expensive as they are more labor intensive for the colorist.

How to maintain highlights and babylights:

Since babylights involve tinier sections of hair being lightened, it’s not as notable as they grow out, which means, yes, by default, babylights are less maintenance than thicker highlights. However, any lightened hair requires the same type of at-home care to properly maintain its health and integrity. Any hair that has been bleached should be treated gently, as bleach makes hair more fragile and brittle.

Don’t wash your hair daily, and when you do, use shampoo and conditioner intended for color-treated hair like Biolage Color Last Shampoo and Conditioner. Purple shampoo like Kristin Ess The One Purple Shampoo is a great option for toning any brassiness out of blonde hair.

It’s also important to use a hair masque or deep conditioner at least once a week, and Olaplex No.8 Bond Intense Moisture Mask gives you professional level hydration at home. Shaz & Kiks Nourishing Naram Conditioner is a deeply hydrating everyday conditioner for when your hair is feeling dry, but it’s not time for a full moisture treatment, and always use heat protectant before you style your hair with any heat tools. Kenra Professional Platinum Blow-Dry Spray is easy to use and helps cut down on blow dry time while it’s also protecting your highlighted hair from heat. Sleeping on silk pillowcases and running a humidifier when you sleep in colder months are also excellent ways to take care of color treated hair.

“You have to take care of your investment, if you want it to look good,” says Corbett. “If you buy an expensive cashmere sweater, would you throw it in the washing machine with dish soap?”

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