The Right Way to Highlight Your Hair According to Your Base Color

The Right Way to Highlight Your Hair According to Your Base Color

When it comes to hair color, there are two terms that are easily conflated, “base color” and “natural color.” Base color refers to the color of your hair, whether natural or dyed, before highlights, lowlights or any additional color is applied, and natural color is the hair color you were born with, which you can see at the root line if someone’s hair is dyed and new hair growth begins. To achieve the right look you’re after, it’s important for your colorist to create the correct base color first, and this also plays a big role in the kind of highlights that look best. These are answers to some of the most common questions we get from our readers, so that you have all the facts before your next salon appointment.

If someone has colored their hair for years and wants to go back to their base color, how should they achieve that successfully?

According to Katie Graves, colorist at Mirror Mirror in Austin, TX, the first thing to do is schedule a color consultation with a professional. “Years of color can create bands of different pigments in the hair—not to mention, damage—and it will take a professional to evaluate and come up with a plan to get you close to your natural color.”

Steven Picciano, celebrity colorist and national artist for Goldwell, says, “If you were going lighter with highlights, you have to schedule a ‘tint back,’ where all of the blonde will be filled—with the pigments natural hair has that blonde does not—and then colored as close to your natural as possible. After this point, an occasional gloss will be necessary to keep the previously colored hair looking good until your natural can grow back in. If you were going darker or red, your colorist will have to remove that color to a level lighter than your natural hair and then fill it back down to match as closely as possible.”

If your natural color is much lighter or a totally different pigment—think cool blonde versus warm brown, or ashy brown versus dark violet—Graves says it will require a professional who specializes in corrective colors to lighten all of the colored parts of your hair and then color it to match your natural. “We’ve all seen the viral TikTok videos of people melting their hair off with bleach at home,” she notes. “This really happens, so do not attempt to ‘fix’ your own color at home. The best thing to do in situations like this is be patient and listen to your colorist and talk candidly about what your budget is. Corrective colors can be more expensive than a normal highlighting appointment, but it will get you closer to your goal color faster by giving your stylist more time and product to work with. It will likely take more than one appointment to achieve the look your going for, so be open-minded and enjoy the journey to getting back to your natural color!”

If all that sounds like too much, Picciano says you can always let your hair grow as long as you can tolerate your roots coming in and then talk to your stylist about a cute short haircut. Graves adds, “Most people’s hair grows about a half-inch per month, so just know that this could take a while depending on how long your hair is.”

Which color highlights look best on each of the main hair color groups: blonde, brown, black, red and gray?

If you want a color that looks natural and flattering and grows out nicely, Graves says a good rule of thumb is to stay within three levels of your natural color. These are the best highlights to consider for each hair color, according to the pros.

Blonde: “If you’re naturally blonde, cool, very bright or even icy highlights will look gorgeous and natural on you,” says Graves. “That being said, color is all about expressing yourself! I recommend that my highlight clients change their hair tone seasonally. Toner is not damaging when done right, and it is one of the quickest ways to change your look. My favorite is taking a bright summer blonde and switching up the tone to be richer, shinier and warmer for fall. If you want to try something a little funkier, try holding a swatch with a similar color up to your face and see how it looks with your skin and eye color. At the end of the day, if it makes you feel good, then it’s the right color for you.” If your blonde is darker, beige-toned highlights may be the best way to go to avoid a hard contrast and streaky look.

Brown: Depending on whether your natural color is warm or cool, color ranges from honey to mushroom work well, says Picciano. “If you have medium-brown hair that looks a little brassy in the sun, try some soft, medium-blonde highlights with a subtle honey tone,” adds Graves.

Black: “If your hair is black, don’t go lighter than a soft brown with your highlights,” advises Graves. Picciano says black hair looks best with sable or brown highlight colors moving through. “If the highlights are too light, the contrast seems harsh, but if they’re too warm, the hair can look brassy. Black hair also carries jewel-tone fashion colors beautifully. The rich, shiny quality of dark hair really helps those deep emerald, blue or ruby tones sing.”

Red: “Ranges of lighter reds and coppers are my favorite,” Picciano says. “A cool red with a blonde or yellow highlight can sometimes feel a little ketchup-and-mustard, so it’s better to keep shades tone-on-tone in red canvas. Play on cool and warm variations for the best look.” Graves prefers warm tones: “Redheads look best with highlights with a warm tone in a similar tone to their natural color, such as soft copper or strawberry blonde.”

Gray: “Gray hair lightens just like pigmented hair,” explains Picciano,” but the key thing to watch out for would be to make sure your colorist allows your hair to lift light and tone neutral/cool. Warm highlights in gray hair will look unintentional.” Brynn Reed, senior stylist and lead extension specialist at Mirror Mirror, says highlights are a great way to add dimension and brightness to gray hair. “Adding blonde highlights is also a great way to camouflage gray hair!”

When are lowlights beneficial?

“Lowlights are exactly like highlights, but instead of using bleach to brighten the hair, we use a darker color,” explains Natalie Cox, senior stylist and colorist at Mirror Mirror. “A lowlight is best used for if your hair is too blonde, you’ve had too many highlight applications, or it’s just becoming one solid blonde color. We would then suggest throwing in a lowlight, typically one that matches your base color to add some dimension to your color. Lowlights are also best if you’re wanting to stay blonde, but go a little darker in the fall without the full commitment of going to dark.”

Picciano says he tries to explain lowlights as a way to add contours to the hair. “Sometimes after many blonding services, the overall look is less exciting or it doesn’t feel as bright as it did once upon a time. This situation is when the hair needs lowlights, but all hair colors need lowlights occasionally. A key thing to remember is that your lightest color is only as bright as the dark you compare it to. I like to lowlight clients with Goldwell Colorance Cover Plus, which is a demi-permanent color that will fade out of the hair without oxidizing orange or looking too dark. Lowlights can also be used on natural brown canvases to add dimension without using lightener.”