Sombre vs. Ombre Hair

Two girls sporting their ombre and sombre hairstyles.

It has been a long time since I’ve had locks so long that they need to be pulled out from underneath a sweater when I get dressed. But after skipping the salons for a long time (thank you, lockdown), I now have long hair. I’m enjoying the length, but I’m on the hunt for something fresh and exciting to do with my hair color.

I thought of going ombre – but then I came across the term sombre. And then I got curious. What’s the difference?

The ombre color effect involves shading the hair from color at the roots to a different color at the ends, typically darker to lighter. It can be done in any color combination. The sombre effect is similar but softer, and the contrast is more subtle. Both effects work best on medium to long hair.

I discovered a few variations of the ombre and sombre color effect and lots of different color techniques to achieve stunning results. As with any hairstyle change, there are a few things to bear in mind.

Let’s Talk About Ombre

Woman with curly, ombre hairstyle.

The term ombre is a French word for “shade” or “shadow”. The hairstyle has been around for quite a few years now and is very popular. This is probably because it works well on a variety of hair types, lengths, and colors.

The effect is quite striking as the hair starts out as one color at the roots and becomes something completely different at the ends. The color combinations are endless. They can be natural colors or on-trend unconventional hair colors.

The ombre hair color style was first picked up as a trend in 2000 when the singer Aaliyah’s hair was dyed black at the roots and gradually faded to at the tips.

The ombre trend hasn’t stayed within the hair world. It has since become a trend in nail art, makeup application, baking, and even home décor and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

What About Sombre

Back profile of a woman with platinum blonde sombre hairstyle.

Sombre is essentially a softer variation of the ombre effect. Presumably a portmanteau of the words subtle and ombre, the result is softer and less dramatic, but no less exciting.

This style is becoming popular as it is slightly more conservative than the ombre look. Generally, the roots will be close to your natural color and will become gradually lighter towards the ends.

This look works very well on all hair colors. Brunettes can have their ends brightened with blonde, caramel, or golden honey tones. Redheads can have a strawberry sombre, a combination of copper roots and pale peachy-colored highlights. 

In a sombre style, you will notice that the root color is with the lighter shades at the ends. This adds depth and movement and can make fine hair look thicker. What a win!

How Do Hair Colorists Achieve These Effects?

Hairdresser dyes woman hair in the salon.

Back in the day, variations in hair color were achieved by creating highlights with a cap. Small sections of hair were pulled through a cap, and a lightener was applied to the pulled-through hair.

Nowadays, there are other methods to achieve color effects.

Hair can be lightened by using foils. Foils conduct heat which allows the product to infiltrate deeply into the hair.  It also ensures that the treated hair is separated from the untreated hair, which creates a more dramatic look.

Foils can result in harder, less natural-looking lines of color. The stylist can avoid this by using a color melt technique or by smudging the roots.

Ombre and sombre effects tend to be a bit more natural-looking as they are usually applied freehand. The technique used to achieve the sombre and ombre results is called balayage – a French term that means ‘to sweep’ or ‘to paint’.  Once the product is applied in the freehand method, it is allowed to process in the open air. Some stylists will cover it with a plastic film.

Foiling generally uses more product and takes longer to apply than a balayage, so it may be more expensive.

Foilyage is a combination of the two techniques. The product is painted onto the hair as you would with a balayage. The treated sections are then covered with foil. The result is a more natural balayage look but with more intense coloring.

Each technique has its place, and your stylist will advise you what is best for what you’re trying to achieve.

Care For Ombre and Sombre Hair Styles

Woman with long, beach waves and ombre hairstyle.

The joy of ombre and sombre hairstyles is that they are relatively easy and cost-effective to maintain. The initial application process is time-consuming and can be pricy, but maintenance visits to the salon will typically be quicker, cheaper, and less frequent. This is because most of the maintenance will be on recoloring the roots to avoid the dreaded regrowth look.

Some of the negatives that clients experience with the ombre and sombre styles are dry tips and split ends due to the lightening process. And as with any color treatment, brassy tones can become an issue.

Here are a few tips to help you maintain your gorgeous ombre or sombre look:

  • Use cool, at most room temperature water when you wash your hair to avoid your color fading. Using hot water for hair washing results in color fading and could also contribute to hair loss. Cool water seals the cuticle and restores shine.
  • If your shampoo creates a lot of lather, it probably contains a detergent. These detergents damage your hair and can alter your fresh new hair color.
  • We all love a good hair treatment but instead use a deep conditioner with a moisture concentrate instead of protein-rich masks.
  • Try to limit the use of heat and hot tools on your hair to avoid the color being stripped. Letting your hair dry naturally occasionally will help you maintain your new hair color and prevent further damage to your locks.
  • Hiding those grays will always be an issue, regardless of your color technique. As mentioned earlier, the joy of ombre and sombre styles is that it is only the root maintenance that you need to be concerned with, and there are some great root touch-up products available at your local store.

A Quick Guide To Related Hair Color Terminology

Hair colorist dyes woman's blonde hair in the salon.

Balayage: A French word meaning sweep or paint – the usual technique for creating an ombre or sombre style. 

Color melting: A perfectly blended mix of hair colors so that you can’t tell where one color starts and the other color ends.

Dip dye:  A more striking look than a regular balayage – the hair is just colored on the ends, often with quite an unconventional color.

Flamboyage:  This method uses an adhesive strip of transparent paper called Flamboyage Meche. The strips are great for a very fine and spontaneous hair selection and also provide a surface for the color to be applied.

Foiling: a coloring process using sheets of foil to separate strands of hair which are then covered with color or lightener and wrapped in the foil to process.

Highlights: Strands of hair that are lighter than your base color.

Layage:  This technique involves dividing the hair into sections and laying it flat on a large board. The color is then painted onto the hair strands with a brush.

Lowlights: Strands of hair that are darker than your base color.

Reverse ombre: A hair coloring technique with a lighter tone at the roots and gradually gets dark toward the ends.


Ombre and sombre are very similar styles; however, an ombre style is more dramatic than a sombre style. A stylist will often use a balayage technique to paint in the color and create the gradual color change effect. These styles are usually low maintenance and remain extremely popular. Now I can’t wait for my next appointment with my hair colorist.


Fantastic Sams: Ombré, Sombre, Balayage…What’s the Difference?

Toppik: Everything You Need to Know About Sombre Hair


InStyle: The Challenges of Ombré Hair: How to Keep Your Ends from Drying Out and Going Brassy

L’Oréal Paris: How to Take Care of Ombré Hair

Francesco Group: What’s the difference between Highlights, Lowlights and Babylights?

Marie Claire: Everything you need to know about flamboyage

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