Here’s How to Get Beautiful, Natural-Looking Highlights

Learn how you can predict what will be the best hair color based on your skin tone and eye color.
By Jill Schuck Taylor for

Here’s How to Get Beautiful, Natural-Looking Highlights

We’re deep in the throes of a '90s-revival moment in fashion, what with the abundance of overalls, crop tops and minimalist slip dresses all over the streets and runways. But please, trend-makers of the world, do not allow that decade’s awful highlights to make a comeback.

You know the ones we mean: They were chunky, stripey and just so wrong. Instead, let these expert tips guide you toward highlights that brighten and flatter while remaining totally realistic.

1. First Consider Skintone
Much like choosing the jewelry that best complements your complexion, adding the right highlights is all about differentiating between warm and cool undertones.

You're cool if...icy silver and platinum brighten your face. Go for beige, white or cool gold highlight tones.

You're warm is more your jam. Go for shades of warm gold, honey and caramel accents in your hair.

But since this isn’t exactly a matter of life and death, Moran Gallagher, master colorist and educator at Mizu Salon in NYC, says there are exceptions to that rule. “If your complexion is fair with pinkish undertones, you can go with a copper-hued highlight,” she says. “Ombre shading is also a good way to introduce warmer tones to your hair if your skin is cool. Because they’re placed further down, not right next to the face, they won’t fight with your skintone.”

2. Then Assess Your Base Shade
Whether you’re working with your real hair color or have already altered your base tone (lighter or darker), Adrian Wallace, a colorist at NYC’s Rita Hazan Salon, says it’s best to only go about two shades lighter with highlights to create dimension in a natural-looking way.

If you have auburn hair, he likes copper touches.

For brunettes, try chestnut or caramel accents.

Blondes, in general it's best to go with warm, buttery highlights à la Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth because they look the most natural. Icy cool beige tones, like January Jones has, are a very specific look most people can't pull off.

3. Next Look at Your Eye Color
Still not sure what's best? Here’s a surprising and totally effective way to choose appropriate highlight shades: Look into a mirror in bright, natural light and really examine your irises. Notice all those little flecks and marbleized colors? “Your natural highlights will reveal themselves in your eyes. Nature has already played its hand here,” says Keith Bocklet, senior colorist and educator at Butterfly Studio Salon in NYC.Darker eyes (often accented by hints of caramel and copper) work best with warmer highlights.

Very light blue or gray eyes (which tend to have buttery yellow or pale beige flecks) pair perfectly with cooler highlights.

Blue or green eyes with neutral skintones can pull off any highlights, not unlike the high priestess of hair dye herself, Linda Evangelista, who looked unnervingly gorgeous no matter what shade she went.

4. Make Sure You're Not Doing This
While hair color should be fun, there are also a few rules to keep in mind.

Adding too much warmth to the hair of someone with a darker warm complexion will result in brassiness.

Going too light will clash with darker shades, making the end result look striped instead of sun-kissed.

Adding reddish touches next to pink-tinged skin can make you look ruddy.

Blondes need to be careful with how light they go, or else risk looking like a 1980s-era soap opera star. “I’d say that 99 percent of blondes need to stay away from ashy-toned highlights, which makes it look frosted and can even create a greenish tinge under strong light,” says Wallace.

5. Go Pro
This is not the time to enlist a friend to slap on some from-a-box goop, no matter how easy it may look. When colorists suggest heading to a salon for highlights, they’re really not masterminding a money grab. Even if you bring in pictures of your desired result (which you definitely should do, FYI), that’s not enough. “I'll take out hair swatches and arrange them on my clients to show how different shades will change their skintone for better or worse,” says Moran.

Professional hand-painted color (known as balayage) allows for more control over placement and helps prevent unrealistic root-to-tip strips of color. Wallace adds that a trained expert will be better able to accentuate your cut, taking into account how you style it every day and for special occasions. “We will guide you in the direction you want, but in a way that will complement you best,” says Bocket.

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