Color Formulation: The Lowdown on Lowlights

Lowlights are very handy when a client becomes too light, or too solid, but doesn’t necessarily need (or want) to do single process to darken their palette.  And since most clients become too light in Summer, Fall and Winter tend to be the official seasons of lowlighting. In my salon life, the majority of my clients are blondes, and I find myself lowlighting them for two reasons:

  1. Add Depth
  2. Add Dimension


A lowlight is the perfect way you can create depth since it acts as a backdrop to the highlight it is near.  And a general rule is that lowlights are either the same level as the base color or darker, but there are some lowlight formulation and lowlight application rules to follow so you can maximize your success. 

Quick Lowlight lesson: A Clip from the Advanced Blonding Course



Two Common Lowlighting Mistakes:

Lowlighting Too Dark 

Lowlights on pre-lightend hair can appear darker than anticipated, because of that I rarely lowlight a blonde with anything darker than a 7.


A heavily highlighted level 10 blonde will view a level 7 lowlight as black.  Seriously.  She will even refer to a 7 lowlight as, “Remember when you put black in my hair?”. Communicate well and always err on the lighter side if you are unsure.


Also, those porous, pre-lightened ends will absorb color very matte, and present darker.  Because of that, I will just feather the lowlight thru the ends, as opposed to saturating them.  And I will usually (but not always) add some gold into the formula to keep them from drabbing out.


Lowlighting Too Strong

Often times you will be low-lighting hair that is virgin at the root and pre-lightened thru the mid-shaft and ends.  Meaning, if your formula is strong enough to lift, the underlying pigment of any virgin hair will be exposed, making it a consideration in your formulation (i.e. you could get hot roots). ​Plus you will usually be depositing on pre-lightened hair (but not always).

Because of this, I formulate my lowlights with a semi or demi permanent acid based color because it has a low pH.  That low pH color won’t cause stress on the hair, plus since it’s “deposit-only” so it cannot disturb the melanin in any virgin hair it’s applied to (read: no hot roots!).


Lowlight Application Options

There are three common options:

  • In a foil
  • Free-hand between the foils
  • Balayage


How to pick the right method?  Free-hand and balayage techniques will have a stronger result, whereas a foil lowlight tends to be quite subtle. It just depends on what you are trying to create.


This video shows a balayage application that includes lowlight placement.  The trick with balayage lowlights is to get the hi’s situated first, then you can place the low.  For maximum impact on this client, I take the full subsection and use full saturation through ends:



This client of mine: Free Hand Lowlights

This client of mine is a former lowlight-phobe. She adores being blonde and I joke that she views that darker color sitting on my tray as the enemy to her blondness.  But as we have gotten to know each other she has started to change her opinion about lowlights.  So much that now she will actually recognizes when she NEEDS them.  Don’t get me wrong, she probably still doesn’t WANT them, but she’s accepting of them.  So with her, I place my highlights freehand after her foils have been situated.

Step One: I place all the foil highlights with my lightener (non-ammonia version for her), only when I’m done do I start in with the lows.


Step Two: I go back between the foils and pick out subsections of the drop-out hair that can be a lowlight, nothing too close to the face.


Step Three: Once I pick my subsection, I apply the lowlight formula from root to end.  If she had longer hair or more porous ends I might feather it, but I decided to saturate her.


Step Four: Let process for at least 20 minutes


Natural Level: 6

Percentage of Gray: 0%

Underlying Pigment: Orange

Existing Color: Previous highlights and base breaks, 10G/9G through midshaft and ends

  • Highs: Loreal Majimeches with 30 volume
  • Gloss: Redken Shades EQ 30g 7NB + 10g 08V + 15 volume
  • Base Break: Lanza 40g 10P + 80g 10 volume

Finished with Olaplex


Freehand Lowlights are fun to paint because it gives you the freedom of balayage with the effect of a foil, this is ideal for a client that doesn’t want a rooted look.  As you can see, if you want a bolder dimensional result, you just take a bigger subsection.



Need Help With Color Theory?

Discover the New Way to Get Education

Explore Lessons

You may also like

Leave a comment