Babylights: The Subtle Hair Color Technique Explained
As far as hair coloring goes, nowadays the sky's the limit for options and inspiration. You can don vibrant neons, experiment with soft pastels, stick to your natural hue, paint on highlights, and any variation in between.
Now here's a technique that decidedly falls on the subtle end of the spectrum: The point of babylights is to be so soft and blendable, ideally they're nearly undetectable.
What are babylights, and what do they look like?
"Babylights are super fine—floss thin—weaves of highlights via foiling techniques," says celebrity colorist and Redken brand ambassador Matt Rez. "Typically their lightness is achieved by bleaching to desired level of lift, rooted to blend/melt into the base color, and glossed for the final color result—they are not meant to be very pronounced and are intended to simulate a super-natural, sun-kissed result."
Or as Stephanie Brown, master colorist at IGK Salon in SoHo, magically describes it: "It's subtle and pretty, and it adds instant sparkle."
Who are babylights good for?
The great thing about babylights, too, is that they work on any hair color or texture. So often when people discuss highlights, they mean blonde highlights; however, this style is about lifting your base—not about going blonde.
"Babylights are only two to three shades lighter than your base color and work with any base color, from light blonde to brunette to red and jet black," notes Brown. So someone with dark hair will have a much different highlight shade than someone with red hair, for example; but they'd both still be considered babylights.
They are also a safe option for color newbies: "They are great for someone who is a bit nervous about highlights, as they can always add more on," says Brown.
How are they different from other highlights?
Considering natural, subtle, and sun-kissed get tossed around a lot when discussing highlights, what makes this specific type different?
"Lots of highlighting terms have begun to be mixed up these days, so babylights can often be confused with balayage or ombre effects, but really all it means is super-soft, tiny, and finely woven-in highlights," says Shvonne Perkins, expert colorist and manager of training at Madison Reed.
Basically, "babylights" is just referring to the width of the highlight, whereas other highlight terms might refer to the unique application (balayage, for example, refers to the art of painting on the highlight by hand, sans foils), color aesthetic (ombre refers to hair that starts dark and gradually becomes lighter), or so on.
And while these all come and go as trends, they are for the record, not necessarily new: "Colorists have actually been creating these for years, but now, consumer language is becoming so sophisticated and educated that clients know to ask for them by name," says Perkins.
What to tell your colorist to get babylights.
As is the advice for many coloring appointments, show up with a photo.
"I always recommend showing your colorist pictures of exactly what you want," says Brown. But then—and this is key—talk about the photo.
Explain to your colorist why you like it and what draws you to it, talk about the colors you see in the photo, and come to an understanding: "Sometimes a client will describe something as golden, but I thought it was more platinum," she says.
But don't just stop at talking about the color; talk about the rest of it, too: "Your best bet is to describe the effect you want, and let your colorist advise you on how to get there—don't get so hung up in the terminology," says Perkins.
"Lots of clients see an image and call it by the wrong name, which can cause confusion in the final outcome. It's best to describe whether it's non-chunky, fine, or subtle highlighting you want, and then let your colorist determine the means to create that," says Perkins.
Also, if you are interested in lightening your hair more than the standard two shades, consider what Rez calls a midlight: "If you or your colorist chose to go lighter than two levels of your base, incorporate a midlight. This would be a secondary connecting color added to the weave tandem (right under) your babylights. So your midlight can be up to two levels lighter than your base, and babylight highlights can be up to four levels lighter than the base."
Babylights are a great way to play with your hair color with a very natural outcome—and anyone can do it. Just be sure to have a thorough conversation with your colorist so you're on the same page.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.