To Gray or Not to Gray: Always the Question

Helen Mirren: the case for gray hair?

Barbara Grufferman explores whether gray hair should be a badge of honor — or something to hide

I remember the first time I ever “colored” my hair. It was 1969,-a year when the world was filled with rebellion. I spritzed on a little Sun-In while soaking up the sun in my Brooklyn backyard listening to Credence Clearwater Revival. In a matter of hours, my dark blond hair with natural golden highlights turned a vibrant shade of orange to match the Bain de Soleil Gelee everybody seemed to use back then (without SPF, of course). My mother helped fix it with a little of her “only your hair dresser knows for sure” home coloring kit from Clairol, and it gradually grew out.

Despite that failed first attempt, I was hooked.

Highlighting has been a part of my life since my twenties. But when the grays started sneaking in — just before hitting 50 — I thought it might be time to rethink my routine. I assumed I would switch over to single process to cover them, just like most other women I knew did. I was trying to figure out a newer, simpler paradigm for my life; was this the moment I was waiting for to proudly and publicly acknowledge my foray into my 50s? Should I now wear my graying hair like a badge of honor, courage, bravado and attitude? I was confused.

Only one name came to my mind when I decided to check in with someone who could give me an honest assessment, and an overview of my options: Frederic Fekkai. The leader in women’s hair care since the late 80s, Frederic opened his first salon in New York, which was an immediate success. Now, his salons are worldwide, and his products have an international following.

There are degrees of gray, Frederic explained. We start out with a few gray hairs. More come in and we get up to about 20 percent, then 30 percent, and eventually our hair is over 50 percent gray. That’s the natural progression (for most women). Once your hair is over 50 percent gray, Frederic said we could consider the following options:

  • Do what the vast majority of women do: color the roots every three to five weeks (single process) and maybe combine with occasional highlights (double process)
  • Instead of covering the gray, let the gray hair grow in, and apply highlights and low-lights through the hair to blend with the gray, creating depth and contrast
  • Go gray all the way!

Frederic’s least favorite choice is the “single process” route. Very often women who do this create a single block of color, with very little contrast (especially if it’s too dark or too light) and this can age you, draining your face. Even if your hair is dark brown or black — which shows up the gray much more than blond hair does — he encourages us to run the highlights and lowlights right through the brown and gray hair, creating a beautiful mix of natural colors. It’s a more modern, fresh look and, he thinks, very sexy, because it’s an interesting way to embrace your hair — and your age — without going completely gray.

But letting your hair go gray is also an option that women should consider. If you’ve already been coloring your graying hair, it might take a little longer to get to where you want it to be. But this might be the most bold way to embrace your age. Think of Helen Mirren and Jamie Lee Curtis as great examples of women who have let their gray go, and look fabulous.

Whatever route you take, there are certain things you can do to keep your color — even natural gray hair –looking great:

  • Hair gloss, a silicone-based product that restores shine and adds polish to the surface of the hair, is often used after coloring. Glosses are especially helpful in helping gray hair look more vibrant.
  • Don’t shampoo your hair the day you are having your color applied.

If you’re getting your hair cut and colored during the same salon visit, always get the cut first, then the color. This will allow the colorist to be more strategic when adding color (specifically highlights) to create the most contrast in the right places.

  • After shampooing and conditioning, position your hair with your fingers, and let it air dry
  • Steer clear of shampoos with sulfates (an ingredient that makes shampoo sudsy), as it can make hair even more dry — especially gray hair, which tends to be drier
  • Use shampoo once a week, and just conditioner and water on the other days
  • Leave some conditioner in your hair (count to 5 seconds when rinsing). It should feel like wet sea weed.
  • Try not to use a blowdryer –or if you must, put it on the lowest setting

What did I choose? I’m staying with what I’ve been doing: combining my dark blonde hair with the new gray and some highlights to help blend it all together. Who knows? Maybe some day I’ll go gray all the way. But, I’m not there just yet. Right now, it’s the perfect compromise between walking proudly and fearlessly into my new life as an “after 50” woman — and holding on to that little piece of my former self.

Editor’s Note: Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the author of The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money, and More

25 Responses so far.

  1. avatar central coast cabin home says:

    I hear you….I keep thinking about it…I just wish I could wake up with Helen Mirren’s or Jamie Lee’s hair or all the spectcular grey hair in the ads! I AM NOT READY, and then, intellectually, I am. How to let go and let the grey shine in? You tell me, convince me. Should we all shave our heads first in support of cancer and the aging process? I vasilate between feeling shallow & vain with empowered and confident. I have already warned my sons to just shoot me if my hair is too dark, dull and colored beyond my years! I HATE THIS CRAP! 🙂

  2. avatar Agnes Angie Kelemen says:

    I suddenly felt ready 8 months ago! I am almost back to my roots! Less gray than I thought AND feeling that I have earned the right to age gracefully.

    • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

      Dear Agnes . . .
      Yay! You have indeed earned the right to age gracefully! I still highlight my hair, but there are fewer and fewer highlights and more and more gray as time goes on and I LOVE it!
      Thanks for reading and commenting,

  3. avatar Mary says:

    I was totally gray when I was 17 and it was not a pretty gray.  My mother had been totally against  using hair color until my experience took me to a hairdresser who taught me how to color my hair without it looking like it was colored.  Over the years I have become so used to doing it that it would be odd not to do it.  I do think about quitting it, but my gray realy washes out my coloring and I am just not ready.   Now I have read this piece I may think about doing it this way.  Thanks for the tips.

    • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

      Dear Mary,
      The real message here is that you should do whatever makes you happy, and what works for you. If you’re serious about letting some gray show, do it gradually . . . let some start to grow in, and use highlights.  The key is to find a terrific colorist who really understands how to work with graying hair.
      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and please stay in touch!

  4. avatar HauntedLady says:

    I’ve never covered my gray which started coming in sometime in my late 30s. I was partly raised by older relatives, most of whom had gray hair, and I’ve always associated it with warmth, kindness and wisdom. As far as any hair coloring, there was a phase in college when I decided to be a redhead but that lasted less than a year. I felt coloring my hair was a needless expense and a time-consuming task that really didn’t do anything for me in the long run. I figure my hair is my gray badge of survival and I refuse to hide it or alter it to suit anyone else.

    • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

      Beautifully and honestly stated, HauntedLady! When you’re ready, you may very well take the plunge . . . and then again, maybe you never will! Do what works for YOU, not what anyone else is doing.
      Thanks for reading and commenting,

  5. avatar Anne Whitacre says:

    I’m with a couple of the writers above: I let my 30% gray grow out… and looked faded.  So, I”m back to coloring my hair to a dark brown that is nicer than my actual color, and will deal with the gray issue again, perhaps when I’m over 50% (or more) gray.  I think some women look spectacular with gray hair — usually those people with brilliant blue eyes or deep brown eyes, but I have greeny/hazel eyes, and lots of freckles, and gray hair (and for that matter, blonde hair) just makes me look like I’m all the same color — with no contrast at all.  I’m’ in my late 50’s and at this stage in my life, gray doesn’t project who I want to be yet, either.

  6. I have no idea how gray I am, partly because I color my hair and partly because my hair (probably like yours Barbara) is dark blonde and gray doesn’t show very much. I also started with Sun In and graduated to “frosting” and now highlights and sometimes low lights. I know the gray is there because my hair dresser tells me so but mainly because my hair acts differently. It’s much less cooperative! I truly think that the kind of gray a person has and their skin tone has a lot to do with how she looks in gray. I say if it looks good naturally then go for it but if it looks drab and mousey and you have light skin (like me) then natural may not be the best option or the option that makes you feel like you. My mother had the same kind of hair that I have and I, personally, don’t want mine to look like hers did when she was 85. By the time she was 93 it was white and beautiful. But she always loved her hair and that’s the important thing.

  7. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I grew up hearing commercials for only your hairdresser knows for sure as though we were diminished for being ourselves. As a teen I experimented with hair dye once with terrible results. I decided to go natural because maintaining a decent color schedule isn’t an option for me as a caregiver. My friends accept me for who I am because none of us are fresh faced young adults anymore. I admit that I might reconsider this issue later.

  8. avatar HauntedLady says:

    It’s also easier to get senior discounts with the gray showing. My age? Depends on the amount of the discount.

  9. avatar KatyDid Wells says:

    Every article I read about this ends up saying, “You can color or you can not color, but I choose to color…” Interesting.

    My mother is in her early 70s and has still not gone completely gray. She didn’t start going gray until well into her late 50s, early 60s and I’d always hoped (assumed) that I’d follow suit.  Alas, it seems I’ll take after her mother instead.  I’ve had gray coming in since my late 30s and as I approach 50 I have a mixed bag of gray & brown that just looks like I can’t make up my mind and still, I’ve never colored my hair.  That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been encouraged by several hairdressers and friends or that I haven’t considered it myself, but in the end, I have just never seen the point.  I know there are some that look at me as someone who looks older, perhaps less successful, or maybe even that I care less about my appearance, but the truth is, I am what I am (which is none of those things).  I’ve just never colored my hair and I don’t see a reason to start now just because I’m showing my age. 
    Would I feel differently if I didn’t have a husband who loves me as I am or perhaps if I had a boss who was secretly judging me on my age instead of my merits?  Hmmm… I’d like to say no, but I do wonder. 

    If our hair suddenly grew in gray overnight and we all looked like Helen Mirren in the picture above with a lovely silver or white mane, then we’d all be able to say yes or no quite easily to the gray or not to gray question, but no one knows how long we will remain in the dreaded in between stage.  I think most of the people in the public eye with gray hair still color their way through the conversion.  Give me another 5-10 years and perhaps I will understand why. 

    For now, those of us who simply courageously brave the grays – and other people’s opinions – I just say, more power to you.  The only opinion that really matters is your own.  When you look in the mirror, how do you feel?  As for me, so far, I feel just fine, so gray on! 

    • avatar KatyDid Wells says:

      I have to add one more thing… My husband has been gray since age 29 and no one ever tells him he looks older, just better looking and more distinguished.  I suppose this double standard is so ingrained into our culture that it no longer bears discussion, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

      • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

        Dear KatyDidWells,
        I agree completely with everything you said . . . and especially your last paragraph on your first comment: you should always do whatever makes YOU happy, and makes YOU feel good about YOU.  That is the most important thing.  As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer highlights in my hair, and more and more gray and I love it. It suits me, and makes me feel good.  That’s the key!
        Thanks for commenting!

  10. avatar Txjr says:

    With all due respect for Mr. Fekkai, he did not mention a 4th option that many of my clients used to love when I still worked behind a chair:  Use a deposit-only (non- or low-peroxide) demi-permanent all-over color several shades lighter than your natural color, as a toner.  These products don’t have enough peroxide to lighten or change your natural color.  They add shine and nuance to your natural color while blending in the gray and giving the effect of highlights without the cost in time and money. 

    Like all the other options mentioned, how it looks on any one person depends on a lot of variables:  natural hair color level, skin tone, percentage of gray, and even the graying pattern.  If you’re lucky enough for your gray to be in well-placed streaks, or to be evenly distributed all over your head, then it can look like you’ve paid a really good colorist for highlights.  If your hair looks mousy and you look washed out, this can give you a brighter appearance, and since it is demi-permanent, it fades as it grows out, so you don’t have as severe a line of new growth as with permanent color.

    This is also a good way to grow out color when you want to start going natural, or to correct over-lightened hair and highlights.

    And for the record, My hair is all natural.  I was born strawberry blonde and grew up to be dark reddish blonde; started graying by 20, had white streaks at both temples by 35, and a “halo” across the front by 40 with 50% gray all over the rest of my head.  I colored my hair 4 or 5 times using the “toner” method I described above when I was still working as a hairdresser, but that was 15 – 20 years ago.  I get a lot of complements on my hair even now, as it looks like a very lovely champagne blonde.

    • avatar Sue ZQ says:

      Love it! I’ve been greying naturally — I teach medical residents and I prefer the ‘air of authority’ – but I’ve been wondering how to do exactly what you just described. Thanks!

  11. avatar Lila says:

    Just go with whatever looks good on you.

  12. avatar Ann Hipson says:

    I’ve colored my hair since my ’30’s when I developed some grey that I found to be rather unattractive. About ten years ago, my hair genius (Lisa V B) said “I think you’re really a redhead” and proceeded to make me a redhead. I really was a redhead and red looks much better on me than my natural (at least at one time) dark brown. Lisa uses a translucent color (it’s not the usual hairdresser color) so that my grey and white streaks show up as lighter shades. My hair looks natural.

    The only advice I have for other women–find a good colorist and get your hair colored professionally by someone who is skilled at what she or he does. Do not buy boxed dye at Walmart. It takes people who know what they are doing to figure out the shade that will look best with your coloring and you can’t figure it out looking at the samples at the store. You also don’t want the color to be all one shade–you need shading and graduations of color for it to look natural. The dyes used by good professionals look better than the kits at the store which tend to be harsher. If you’re going to have roots, make sure your style doesn’t show them off. (My roots don’t show much at my hairline, but good golly, if I have a part on the left side of my crown. . . .) As I said, get a professional.

    I’d go gray, if it wouldn’t take better than a year to grow out my shoulder length hair. Lisa has promised to tell me when I need to start and she said she can stripe me so that it won’t look grossly horrible for that year. But I won’t look good.

  13. avatar A R says:

    Why not just enjoy the hair you have? I’ve found that keeping an attractive cut, having my hair trimmed every 4 weeks on the nose, and avoiding chemical treatments has helped me look pretty good at 40, even with grey creeping in. Hey, this is the time to experiment! Angled bob, spiky topside, you-name-it. Grey looks super-cool when it’s cut in an edgy way!

    Color? No thanks! I’ve seen how goofy some women and men look when they color. I’ve also seen too many people with thinned hair thanks to color treating. (I don’t mean home kits either. I am referring to salon treatments.)

    • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

      Thanks, AR, for offering your good advice . . . and, it’s true, especially as we age, our hair can be even more fragile. The les we do to it, the better it feels and looks.
      In fact, in my book, I talk about throwing away the blow dryer.  I wrote about that right here on a few months ago, too.  Check out my archived articles.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. avatar barbellen says:

    My mother was premature gray and all 4 of us kids got it. I started streaking my hair in my teens so no one could tell. After 30 years of steaking and coloring it I finally stopped. I have been my natural grey hair color for 2 years and have gotten alot of compliments about my hair color. When I did color it is was always obsessing over my grey roots showing.  I was always a bleach blonde and when I stopped coloring it no one could even tell.My younger sister just colored her hair dark again because she is tired of people asking if she is her daughters grandma.
    I love my hair now more then I did 2 years ago and have stopped obsessing with my gray roots because I have accepted that grey is my natural hair color!

  15. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    Mr. Wow noticed his first silver slivers in his mid-twenties.  It looked good, like glittery little highlights.

    Later, in his mid-thirties, Mr. Wow (who still had a baby-face) thought he was more “highlighted” than he might like.   But…darkening never looked good.   I found my  salvation in going blond for a few years.  I mean, really blond!  It was fun, it worked and it also distracted from my now-thinning locks.  (And with gray eyes, it worked with my coloring.)

    Now I’m grey-ish.  Stopped the bleach, but I still spritz on lemon juice mixed with a dash of hydrogen peroxide to give a lift. 

    I second what was said above—go with what you think looks good and what makes you FEEL good.  

    • avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

      Dear Mr. Wow . . . that is the KEY with just about everything . . . do what works for YOU.  (Love what you’re doing, btw!).
      Thanks for commenting,

  16. avatar MATTHEW HARRIS says:

    sorry, i have to scream:


  17. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I have hundreds of silver (my hairdressers looked, and yup, they really are silver) hairs scattered throughout my hair, plus a few rather dazzling white threads. They started appearing around the time I turned forty. No one believes me, because they can’t see them…my hair is a relatively dark brown, which contains a variety of natural bronze and copper highlights. I also keep it extremely short, clipped with a number two guard around the sides and back, well above my ears, and then scissor-cut to no longer than finger width everywhere else (and well-blended too). I have very fine, wavy hair, and although it is currently well grown in, it is very delicate, and pulls out easily, causing it to thin and create actual nearly bald patches when it is long. Also, I freely admit that I am disposed to loathe long hair on myself….my hair won’t take either heated or unheated curling efforts, I detest perms, and pressure from even a pony-tail gives me a headache. My scalp is phenomenally oily and reactive, must be cleaned with a non-sulfate shampoo every day (sometimes more if I sweat or am in contact with dust) or I suffer from pimples and a severe build-up of sebum, and doesn’t tolerate sprays, conditioners, or most “products” well.

    But coloring, ah, that I have been doing for years, whenever I choose. At home (I get excellent $20 haircuts at a place I have been frequenting for two decades, and I don’t have the money to spend on salon coloring. For my hair, it costs from $50 to $75, and it only lasts a month because I get a cut every 3-4 weeks), with great care. I have never given myself burns, and it is very amusing. I have been platinum blonde, black, various incarnations of red both natural and suspect, fuchsia, purple, violet and strawberry. My current project is to go cobalt blue.

    It isn’t about covering the gray (I didn’t color for several years because my depression got the better of me), or trying to pretend that I am a kid again. I do it because I enjoy the different looks I achieve, and because it is fun. The most frequent, and, in a very real way, saddest comments I hear are from other women, and go something like this: “I wish I had the nerve to do that (cut my hair off, color like that)”. These are not women whose livelihood depends on a certain appearance, they don’t work or appear in the “public eye”. My first thought is, “Well, why can’t you?”, but is rarely voiced. Hair grows back, dye grows out. My first two husbands hated short hair, and made a tremendous stink when I cut mine off. In both cases, the stuff was falling out in fistfuls, and I didn’t want to be completely bald (well, actually…but that is another story…). When I colored, they were even more incensed. I didn’t dun them for growing beards (or, in the case of the second, chin-cheese that looked like a small, mangy animal had died on his jaw), it was my hair, and I do draw the line at what happens with my hair. I don’t especially consider myself a nervy person (but most people do, which I find bemusing), so the whole hair thing is a bit of a mystery to me.

    But the to hide or not to hide one’s gray is, to say the least, a bit of ageism, and sexism and a double standard as well. My R., who is ten years my junior, started losing his hair and graying when he was 19 (he is very healthy, by the way). No one blinks an eye at this…or at Grecian Formula, or at anything men do with their hair…shaved to chrome-like shininess, mullets (ach, gag), gelled into submission, Euro-trash blond with dark roots, comb-overs, even long and flowing. But women are fully expected to be slaves to the stuff, to freely suffer angst about every decision, to agonize over cutting off even an inch, to worry about what society and their men-folk will think, to fear stereotyping (isn’t short hair dykey? Doesn’t gray mean I’m old? Isn’t long and flowing sexy and available?)…and the vast majority do, and with feeling.

    I won’t ride that train, thank you very much. R. does not like short hair…but after a very difficult trial with the lank mop at its lengthiest, I told him it was making me miserable, and it was going. I would compromise…I wouldn’t shave it with unguarded clippers at home. It went, and I sighed with contentment as I watched it fall. Freedom. My feeling is this…if you have lovely hair that delights you and makes you happy, and you enjoy caring for it, and luxuriating in that care, then you should enjoy and be happy, gray, blond, red, brown or black. If you want to experiment with different styles, go there as well. And if you are discontent with your color, no matter what it is, or you are simply up for a change…the Internet is your friend. Identify your type of hair (coarse, fine, etc.), and scalp condition and type, and research the different types of color so that you are well-armed and informed when you walk into that shop. That way, you’ll not be dazzled by some brilliantly coiffed and colored technician’s spiel, and you can converse intelligently regarding hues, toners, types of color, etc.

    Do it because you want to do it, not because of your age, or because you feel you must. It should be fun, and exciting, and interesting. We must never stop having fun, and loving ourselves and life, just because we are getting older. Remember to think of it as evolving, with all of the wonderful implications of the term.