Best Highlights and Lowlights for Every Hair Color, According to Stylists

Just a little light can make a big difference.

Brunette woman with caramel highlights smiling
Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images

PSA: You don't need to dye your whole head a drastically new color in order to create a serious hair transformation. Rather than dye all your hair one color, incorporating highlights and/or lowlights into your strands at your next appointment can add beautiful dimension and movement to a single process color. Below, we've asked the experts for their advice on the best highlights and lowlights for every hair color, so you can head to the salon prepared.

Brown hair

Best highlights for brown hair

The universal rule for the most flattering highlights is to stay within four shades of your base color. According to George Papanikolas, celebrity colorist and Matrix Brand Ambassador, "bronde" tends to be the most flattering for brown hair, as it's a mix between brown/blonde. "Brown hair has the benefit of being in the middle of the hair color spectrum, so it has the broadest and most versatile range—it can look good with caramel, golden, or baby blonde highlights," says Papanikolas. "The lighter you go, typically the cooler the tone, and the more caramel tends to skew warmer."

The general rule of thumb when picking out a hair tone is to choose tones opposite that of your skin. For example, if you're warm-toned, you might opt for an ashier, more cool shade of highlights, and vice versa. "Soft caramel or honey-colored highlights look amazing added throughout medium brown hair," explains Paul Cucinello, a celebrity hairstylist and co-founder of Cucinello Beauty. "If you're worried about having any sort of copper/red cast in your hair, your colorist should lift the highlights lighter than the desired end result and then gloss or tone them down to the target shade—this will help avoid brassiness after your color oxidizes. The only shades I would definitely avoid are anything super dark (black, red, deep brown, etc.) or super light (platinum, silver, etc.) as it can look tacky."

For those with light brown or dark blonde hair, you're in luck—these shades are the perfect color to build off of when it comes to highlights. First, you need to choose whether you want to be darker or lighter. "When going darker, adding slices of rich chocolate brown will create some depth without making the hair read too dark," explains Cucinello. "When going lighter, add some painted balayage highlights in a soft golden blonde for warmth. If you want to stay in a cool tonal range, try adding mushroom-colored highlights."

Best lowlights for brown hair

In terms of lowlights for an illuminated brunette, Papanikolas likes shades of mocha, ash brown, caramel, or rich chocolate, which will look beautiful on brown hair. "Adding tone on tone, rich brown lowlights work beautifully with warmer skin tones to brighten and lighten the complexion without adding too much warmth," he says. "I typically wouldn't suggest adding lowlights that are darker than your base color as this can look harsh and unnatural."

Dark brown or black hair

Best highlights for dark brown or black hair

For those with very dark hair, it's important to keep highlights no more than a shade or two away from the base color to keep it looking cohesive—rich auburn or chocolate brown highlights will add warmth and dimension to an otherwise solid color, according to Cucinello. "On very dark hair, even rich espresso brown highlights can add the perfect touch to liven it up and make it feel a little less saturated," he says. "If you're feeling edgier vibes, you can also choose to break up the color by adding strategically placed chunks of cherry or blue-black—I say chunks because anything fine or woven into black hair just won't show."

Best lowlights for dark brown or black hair

In terms of lowlights for darker shades, Cucinello loves to play with shades of black on dark brown hair. Dark mocha lowlights can also add a nice dimension to darker hair colors, too.

Blonde hair

Best highlights for blonde hair

For those with light blonde hair, Cucinello suggests first making a choice as to whether or not you are open to compromising the health of your naturally light blonde hair. "This is the color so many people are paying a ton of money to achieve and maintain," he says. "If you want to avoid lots of maintenance, I'd opt for some slices of a richer, semi-permanent tone—this will eliminate the long-term commitment to color and give you a lot of bang for your buck."

Your options are best based on your skin tone and eye color here, so if you have a warmer skin tone and you want a richer kind of color, Cucinello suggests going for golden apricot or honey blonde. "If your skin reads cooler, try adding some fun cosmetic tones like pink or silver," he suggests. "If you are down for some maintenance and want to go even lighter, white gold, pearl, or platinum highlights will work best."

If you have light to medium blonde hair, Cucinello says you can play around a bit more compared to other blonde shades. "Taking your color bolder would only require adding some light vanilla blonde highlights in a heavier concentration around the hairline," he says.

For copper blonde hair, your colorist can paint some soft, golden, or strawberry blonde highlights in to brighten it up. "When you're looking for a richer result, try adding some deeper auburn pieces," suggests Cucinello.

Best lowlights for blonde hair

"Honey, caramel, or amber tones work perfectly as a lowlight for blondes, because going too ashy with the lowlights can make the color look flat and muddy," says Papanikolas. "Giving blondes lowlights helps give the hair dimension and movement, but should only be placed from the roots to mid-shafts—the ends should remain the blondest and lightest." Pulling the lowlights through the ends can give a zebra effect and dull down a blonde.

Red hair

Best highlights for red hair

Redheads look best with lighter golden/copper highlights in shades of strawberry blonde, amber, copper, or rust. "The red-tinted tones of the highlights work in favor to give red hair movement and dimension while keeping the overall color red," says Papanikolas. "Just like for brunettes, highlights should act as an accent so that the overall color stays red and should be strategically placed to frame the face, natural part, and ends. A sheer copper-gold gloss over the highlights to act like pantyhose gives the most sophisticated tone-on-tone effect."

If you want to brighten up natural auburn hair, Cucinello suggests adding a few babylights that are just a shade lighter or darker, but in the same range of color. "Nothing looks worse than brassy yellow highlights or black streaks in auburn hair," he says. "Instead, stick with a lighter copper or a deeper warm red."

Best lowlights for red hair

Shades of copper, auburn, and burgundy are a great lowlight, but should not be any darker than the base color. "Going darker with the lowlights can create a harsh unnatural effect," explains Papanikolas. "Blending in these shades of red can give the color more pop and vibrancy."

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