Partial Highlights vs. Full Highlights: What to Know

Partial Highlights vs. Full Highlights: What You Need to Know

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28 August 2017
Close up of a woman's head with color being applied to section of hair on a foil
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Emily Arata

Senior Editor, Hair.com

28 August 2017

As an employee of L’Oréal, Emily works with celebrity stylists to make finding the right cut, color, or style easier than ever before. She's previously written for Allure, Elite Daily, and First We Feast.

If the idea of getting highlights makes you feel a little anxious, you’re not alone. The pressure to choose a secondary shade that blends perfectly into the color scheme you’ve already got going on, to make sure you’re choosing the right kind, and to maintain them—it’s a lot.

Don’t panic. Highlights, whether they’re partial highlights or full, are universally flattering. No colorist in the world is going to let you choose a hideous color without saying something.

Still, deciding between partial and full highlights is a choice you’ll have to make on your own. No worries, because we’re about to deep dive into both techniques to help you make the most educated decision on the subject.

Why should any woman get highlights?

We’ll start with an easy question, one Redken artist Shannon VanFleet has plenty of thoughts about.

Highlights are the most effective way to add dimension to any hair color...They can be as pronounced or as subtle as you like and are a great asset when you are wanting to blend away gray hair or wishing for a softer grow out.

In other words, highlights are basically a photo editing app for your hair color. Whether you’re growing out a dramatic hair color or just pulling attention away from a haircut you don’t love, they’re an excellent investment for women of all ages and hair types.

What are partial highlights?

Now that you know why highlights are important, we can break down the techniques involved. As the name suggests, partial highlights only cover a section of your hair.

“The only difference in application between a full highlight and a partial highlight is the area covered,” VanFleet says. “A partial is usually concentrated around the face and part line.”

Instead of bold, bright color, you’ll be left with subtle and gradual light pieces. The service will most likely cost less than a full head of highlights, and take half the time to complete.

“The downside [of partial highlights] is that what you gain in time saved, you lose in impact,” the hair pro notes. “However, if you want to simply maintain your current color, focus the highlights in a specific area—like around your face—or are trying highlights for the first time, then a partial application may be the best choice for you.”

In other words: Partial highlights are primarily a way to transition into the world of accent hair colors.

What are full highlights?

If partial highlights are the hair equivalent of a sepia-toned photograph, then full highlights are bright, bold color—a whole rainbow of it. While the former may invite friends to ask if you’ve done something different with your look, the later will be self-evident.

“A full highlight is just as it sounds—every area of the head is affected,” VanFleet says. “The main benefit of a full highlight is that there will be a greater impact since more of the hair is affected.”

Don’t get too excited if this sounds too good to be true. After all, every rose has its thorn.

“The downside is that [full highlights] will take much longer to accomplish,” the artist continues. “You could very well be looking at one to three hours of just application time depending on the desired effect and amount of hair you have.”

Unlike partial highlights, full highlights will cost a bit more money. Still, VanFleet notes that there’s no need to constantly touch up this technique. Instead, you can opt for partial highlights to freshen up your color upon return visits to the salon.

Which technique is the most popular?

It’s a close race for most popular highlighting technique, according to VanFleet. We live in an age of lightning fast internet, smartphones, and social media. Instant gratification is our bread and butter, essentially.

With that in mind, full highlights have a slight lead on their less-shocking counterpart.

“From what I am seeing right now, I would say that the full highlight is taking precedence over the partial,” VanFleet says. “I think that is because people are looking for more drastic changes in their hair color. We love to see a change right away and a full highlight can have a lot of impact.”

Another reason for the popularity of the full head of highlights? You can play it up as much as you want or ask your colorist to keep those streaks fine and subtle (an application technique known as babylights).

There’s no one way to wear highlights, and having a full head gives you more of an opportunity to play around with them. When it comes to your mane, versatility is always the best option.

What’s the smartest way to keep highlights looking their best?

Like all hair color, highlighted strands can become (in VanFleet’s words) “dull and dingy” within a matter of a few days—particularly if they’re blonde. VanFleet conjures up the image of a white linen shirt being worn around a city as a metaphor. Pollution and grit will sit on the surface, making the fabric less white with every passing day. You’ll definitely plan to add bleach before throwing it in the wash.

When it comes to blonde strands, the bleach equivalent is a deep, cleansing wash. From the L’Oréal portfolio of brands, VanFleet adores Redken Hair Cleansing Cream Shampoo and the brand’s new Clean Maniac Micellar Clean-Touch Shampoo.

“[Clean Maniac] is silicone- and sulfate-free, provides a UV filter, Neofresh technology to repel odor (like smoke), and gently washes away dirt, grit, pollution, product build-up, and excess oils,” she explains. “Clean Maniac is good for daily use and the Hair Cleansing Cream is more suited for the occasional deep clean. Pairing these with the Blonde Idol Custom Tone Violet Conditioner is the fail-safe way to keep your blonde salon fresh for week.”

If shampoo and conditioner aren’t cutting it, VanFleet advises talking to your colorist about a new highlight color. Keeping the shade fresh will help you love your ‘do just a little bit more.

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