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