These two styles are often confused and this can be dangerous. You could end up with a look you never wanted in the first place. So, undercut vs fade – what’s the difference?
An undercut is a specific style where the hair on top is long, often slicked back, and left disconnected from the shaved or buzzed sides and back. A fade is an effect where the sides and back gradually increase in length from the bottom to the top.
That’s the short answer, but as always – I wanted to dig deeper.
After going through the crucial differences between undercuts and fades in more detail, I’ll show you exactly how to choose between the two.
Let’s get to it.
Undercut Vs Fade: 3 Key Differences
Understanding the differences is the first step toward choosing the right style for yourself.
Undercuts are disconnected while fades are connected.
What I’m referring to here is how the hair on top and the hair at the sides relate to each other.
With the undercut, the long hair on top is disconnected from the very short/shaved hair at the sides.
In other words, the sides do not blend gradually into the top. There’s a harsh line separating the two with no graded transition.
This disconnection is what makes undercuts so bold and eye-catching. There’s a huge contrast between the long top and the short sides, with no attempt at blending the two together.
A “fade” is where the sides and back gradually increase in length from the bottom to the top, with the different lengths blended seamlessly into one another using a clipper.
This blending is what gives the fade the characteristic “blurred” effect that they’re known for.
The hair on top could be absolutely anything, ranging from a buzz cut to a pompadour.
Faded styles, unlike undercuts, do transition gradually from the sides to the top. The two are usually connected and there isn’t a sharp transition or harsh line between them.
2. Specific Style Vs Feature
An “undercut” is a specific style, while a “fade” is an effect or feature that could be included in many different hairstyles.
When you tell a barber you want an “undercut”, they will – for the most part – know what you want.
Ultimately, the classic version of the undercut is this:
Shaved/buzzed sides and back, with relatively long and slicked-back hair on top. The sides and back are disconnected with no blending between them.
Here’s a classic, slicked-back undercut.
Now, there are definitely variations of the undercut where the hair on top is not slicked back and is styled in a different way.
But the long on top, short on sides look with no connection between the two is what defines the undercut.
When you tell a barber you want a “fade”, you really aren’t giving them much information at all.
A fade is simply an effect where the sides and back gradually increase in length from the bottom to the top.
But it’s an effect and not a specific style.
The hair on top could be cut and styled in countless different ways.
In addition, the fade itself could be cut down to different lengths and be set at different heights.
Fades can be “low” – around half an inch above the ear.
Or they could be “mid” – around an inch above the ear.
Finally, they could be “high” – around the level of the temples.
Because the fade is an effect and not a specific style, you need to give the barber way more information to ensure you get the look you want.
If you’re looking to style an undercut, you’ll need enough length to do so.
This is assuming you’re going for the classic, more traditional form of the undercut where the hair on top is slicked back.
In order to properly slick back your hair and have it stay that way, it’ll need to be 4 to 6 inches long.
There are some ways of training your hair to slick back – but overall, length is the most important factor.
If you were hoping to tie your hair back into a bun like with the man bun undercut, you’ll need even more length.
Even if you weren’t looking to slick the hair back, you’ll usually still need enough length for the contrast between the sides and the top to be significant enough to call it an undercut.
Let’s talk about fades – how much length do you need?
Well, as little or as much as you want.
Remember, a fade is an effect/feature and not a style. Because of this, it can be included in both very short styles and very long styles, as well as everything in between.
You can get buzz cuts with fades, quiffs with fades, pompadours with fades, and so on.
The point here is that you don’t need a specific length to have a fade. It really depends on what style and length you want on top.
The hair at the sides/back will usually be short regardless. It’s pretty rare to have a fade style that’s longer than a #3 at the sides.
Check out my articles on #1 fade styles and #2 fade styles if you’re interested.
Undercut Vs Fade: How To Choose
Now that you know what the main differences between undercuts and fades are, consider these factors when choosing between the two.
Undercuts are often more eye-catching and attention-grabbing than fades.
One reason for this is that they’re simply less common.
But another key reason for this is the disconnection between the sides and the top that undercuts have.
The harsh transition from the sides to the top with no gradual blending between them makes undercuts stand out from a crowd.
If you’re looking to make more of a statement with your style, the undercut is a way of doing so without going for anything too wild.
Fades are generally more subtle than undercuts, simply because of the graded transition in length.
But even fades can range in subtlety.
For example, “tapers” are the lowest form of fade you can get as they don’t extend higher than around the top of the sideburn. They’re very subtle and are sometimes difficult to even notice.
In general, the higher up the fade is and the shorter the fade is, the more attention-grabbing and bold it’ll look.
For example, a low #2 fade (reaching around an inch above the ear) will look more subtle than a high skin fade.
A high skin fade will often look similar to an undercut, simply because of how much of the sides and back will be shaved.
But as you now know, the key difference between an undercut and a high skin fade is that the sides won’t blend gradually into the top with an undercut. With a high skin fade, they will.
People that are balding may benefit from undercuts more than they would from a fade.
This comes down to the fact that very short and very high sides can often make receding temples look less obvious.
As this is one of the defining features of the undercut, people with receding hairlines should consider it.
The very short and very high sides almost absorb the receding temples, making them a lot less noticeable – as though they’re simply a part of the overall style.
The effect is even more powerful when the sides are completely shaved down as opposed to just buzzed down.
Now, you can get a similar effect with a high skin fade, but it won’t be quite as obvious.
Lower fades such as tapers, low fades, and mid fades don’t really give you this benefit as the fade itself won’t reach as high as the temples.
Another reason why an undercut is often a good option for balding men is due to the large contrast in length between the super short sides and the relatively long hair on top.
Having the sides so much shorter than the hair on top makes the hair on top look fuller in comparison.
It’s a visual illusion that’s surprisingly effective.
For men with thinning hair on top, it’s a benefit that shouldn’t be ignored.
Once again, you can get fade styles where you’ve got a large contrast between the sides and the top – for example, a pompadour with a high skin fade.
But most fade styles won’t usually have as much contrast between the sides and the top as undercuts do.
Undercuts are generally higher maintenance than most fade styles.
Note that I didn’t say all fade styles. As fade styles can vary so widely, some are definitely higher maintenance than others.
In general, the higher up and shorter the fade is, the higher maintenance will be.
For example, a mid #1 fade will be lower maintenance than a high skin fade.
Skin fades are notoriously high maintenance.
The reason for this is that even a couple of millimeters of growth will be obvious and ruin the shaved appearance.
Because of this, people looking to maintain a consistent skin fade will find themselves going to a barber for touch-ups every 2 weeks or so.
But overall, undercuts are higher maintenance than most fades.
For one, undercuts will have long hair on top. Long hair comes with its own maintenance requirements, ranging from washing, brushing, styling, and more.
It’ll just take more of your time and attention than a buzz cut would, for instance.
Yes, fade styles can have long hair on top too. But this would be a personal decision. You don’t need long hair on top to have a fade. For example, you can get a buzz cut or a crew cut with a fade.
Undercuts, on the other hand, will generally require relatively long hair on top. At least around 4 to 6 inches would be a good rule of thumb.
So, if you’re looking for a lower maintenance style – a low or mid #2 fade may be a better option than an undercut.
There you have it. Hopefully, everything you could ever want to know about undercuts and fades – their key differences and how to choose between them.
If you were on the fence about choosing one or the other, hopefully, you now have the information required to make that final decision.
Ready Sleek founder. Obsessed with casual style and the minimalist approach to building a highly functional wardrobe. Also a fan of classic, vintage hairstyles.