4 Tips for Going Gray
The Quarantine, Lockdown, Covid Crisis, whatever you want to call it, is forcing the women of America to embrace their gray hair.
Whether you want to go gray—or feel that Covid is forcing you to go gray—I’ve got some tips for you.
But first: the back story.
I started toying with the idea of going gray during the summer of 2010. I had just turned 40. But it was another two years before I ACTUALLY decided to let my grays grow.
I had started coloring my hair when I was in college, just for fun, and continued coloring throughout my twenties. But then the Baby Years arrived, and I was on autopilot: sleep deprived, overwhelmed, with no time to think about my hair. So, when my roots would start to show, off to the salon I would go. I kept this up for another decade.
Then one day I realized that I was starting to schedule life events around my need to color my hair. Vacation? Gotta choose a week where fresh color won’t be tinted by the sun, but also choose a week where my roots are not yet showing, and also need to choose a week where I’m not scheduled for color. See where I’m going with this? My life was being dictated by my hair!
My decision to “go gray” was a controversial one—not for me, but for people in my life. Quite a few people (my kids, my college roommate) tried to talk me out of it, telling me I would look old, people would think I’m older than I am, etc. But since I was the one who had to live with the consequences: the chemical exposure of the frequent dye jobs, feeling frustrated with how quickly my roots would show, sacrificing time and money to prioritize coloring my hair, well let’s just say I was ready!
So, in 2012 at the age of 42, I made the decision. I talked with my stylist who told me that I wouldn’t be able to do it, she said lots of women try it but hardly any succeed. This was great feedback because it helped me to know that I needed to find a new stylist who would support me in my decision.
I stopped coloring my hair and I dove into research to help me figure out how to do this gracefully. But I had a hard time finding resources to prepare me for the journey. (Remember, this was 2012, Instagram wasn’t really a thing back then and no one had heard of hashtags.) I found a book about one woman’s experience going gray and I read it from cover to cover. I made a list of every woman I knew (or had known) who had gray hair . . . it ended up being a VERY short list! Even though I googled endlessly, I found very few personal accounts of those who had gone gray. I started looking for gray-haired women when I would be out and about, and sometimes I even worked up the courage to ask about their journey to going gray.
However, I was determined to do this and to see the process through to the end. I made appointments at two local, high-end salons that are known for their work with hair color. Each salon had a “specialist” in gray hair, so I visited with each in an effort to formulate a plan for blending my gray roots. (I discovered that this is not as easy as you would think, but I cover this in #3 below.)
Next, I bought baseball caps, hats, and hairbands to cover the line between my dyed hair and my gray roots. I spent a lot of time avoiding my own reflection because I just couldn’t handle seeing the two-toned hair. However, there was nothing I could do at this point, I just had to be patient and wait for growth.
It took me a total of 21 months to fully grow out my hair to gray. I am SO GLAD I persevered because I have gained MONTHS of my life back, and saved thousands of dollars in the years since I stopped coloring. (I was spending 2-3 hours every 3 weeks coloring my hair. Add in the cost of coloring, plus tip, and you can see how going gray has saved me time and money.)
Here are 4 tips that helped me to go gray and maybe they will help you too.
1. Be 100% committed. People will certainly have opinions (both positive and negative) about your journey. DO NOT BE SWAYED by those who try to talk you out of your decision. You need to make the decision that is best for YOU. (There is still one person in my life who tells me EVERY TIME I SEE HER that I look old and should go back to coloring my hair. To which I say: it’s a free country. You color yours but I’m not coloring mine. My decision, not yours.”)
2. Be prepared. The first 2 months are the hardest. Looking in the mirror when you’re growing out your gray can be tough because your eyes will look towards your very unsightly roots every time you look in the mirror. Your impulse will be to call and make an appointment to color your hair. PUT DOWN THE PHONE AND STAY STRONG. After a couple months you will start to look expectantly in the mirror, eager to see new growth, curious about the shade of your undyed hair, and you’ll stop cringing every time you see your roots showing.
3. Have a plan. Choose to cut your hair short. Or don’t cut it at all. Some people cut their hair short, cutting off all the color, and start from scratch, allowing their gray hair to grow in. This was not something I wanted to do. I have never found a short haircut that worked for me, so I was reluctant to start over with a new haircut AND gray hair. It seemed like too much change all at once. In the meantime, I invested in a few wide headbands that I could wear to cover the “line” where my gray hair met my colored hair. About 10 weeks into the growing-out process, I made an appointment at a local salon to have some highlights and lowlights cut into my roots to help blur the line between my dyed hair and my roots. THIS WAS PURE MAGIC. It made all the difference in the world between walking around looking like a skunk vs gracefully growing gray. (Note: it did take longer to grow out my color due to this highlight/lowlight process, but I felt that it was worth it.)
4. Use the “growing out” process as a time to reassess your skin tone, makeup, and wardrobe. Once my gray hair had grown enough that it framed my face, I noticed that a lot of my clothes made me look washed out and it seemed as though my make-up no longer looked as good as it once had. I had always colored my hair a reddish/auburn and chose my makeup and clothing accordingly. But suddenly I was finding that I looked better in vibrant blues and maroons and discovered that these colors brought out the green in my eyes. I started experimenting with cool, rather than warm makeup and was shocked to discover that I have cool tones to my skin! I had always considered myself to have warm undertones, but it turns out that my dyed hair was tricking me into thinking I had warm skin. Take the growing out process as a time to get to know yourself, your skin, your hair, your clothes, your preferences. It’s a long process, you might as well dive in and make the most of it.
Lastly, I’ve had a lot of questions about this topic, back when I originally posted this on a different platform. I’m adding a Q&A here to help address some of the more frequently asked questions.
Q. How do you keep the gray looking nice? Which shampoo and conditioner do you use?
A. I stopped using conventional shampoo and conditioner in 2017 and switched to natural, plant-based, sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners. I only wash my hair once a week, and I am currently using Curly Girl products. (There has been controversy recently over the Curly Girl products, but I have not had any issues with them, and I have been using them since summer 2018.) Prior to Curly Girl I was using Young Living shampoo and conditioner. It definitely takes some time to transition your hair when switching to sulfate-free products, because your hair will have a lot of build-up and this will cause it look greasy, even a day or so after washing. But once you stop using products with sulfate, silicone or alcohol, eventually your hair will shed the build-up. (You might need to do a clarifying treatment at home or in a salon to rid your hair of build-up). To keep the grays looking bright, I get a clarifying process at the salon using a product called With or Without the Hue by Curly World, and at home I use a drop or two of Blue Tansy essential oil (it’s a blueish purple essential oil from Young Living) to my conditioner once a month to help to brighten my grays.
Q. I was thinking of getting a partially grey wig to wear until I could grow out my hair. What do you think of this?
A. It did not even occur to me to do this, but I’d love to hear how it works out for any of you who choose this option! At the time I was growing out my grays, I was mom to a toddler, and I was also training for a half marathon, so a wig would have been too much work for my lifestyle.
Q. Do people ever think you are older than you are, or do people think you are the grandma of your children?
A. Surprisingly, this is not an issue at all! I live in a part of the country (near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) where it’s normal for women to let their gray hair grow in naturally. (This was not the case a decade ago, but it is becoming more of the norm!) It’s also pretty normal around here for women to have children in their late 30s and early 40s, so some of the moms I see have streaks of gray. In fact, I was recently at the zoo with my friend and her kids (ages 1 and 3) and multiple people assumed I was the mom, no one seemed to think that I was their grandmother.
Q. Can you explain the highlights and lowlights process?
A. I had to go to a salon for the highlights and lowlights, the stylist did this using foils. I wanted the stylist to put gray streaks in my hair, but she explained that she couldn’t really do that because gray is not really a color, it’s a lack of color. (This was early 2013 so maybe they have perfected the technique now and can actually put gray streaks in?) I had previously colored my hair auburn, so I had a faded auburn, along with salt and pepper as the grays came in. The stylist added copper lowlights (darker color than my grays but blended nicely with the color that was growing out) and she put in some blonde highlights to blend with the lighter, gray hairs. I have never been blonde (not even close) and although it blended nicely at the roots, as it grew out, it looked yellowish, made me look like I had grays that were dingy, and I did not really like the blonde color at all. (But it was helpful to blend the roots in with what was growing out so I don’t know how I would handle this if I was going to do it again. I would probably see if she could cut in gray, rather than blonde; or else I’d go REALLY light, like a platinum blonde, so that it didn’t look yellow against the grays.)
Q. What about adding a fun color to your hair as it’s growing out?
A. When I was letting my grays grow, the last thing I wanted was for ANYONE to notice my hair, so adding a bright color to my hair was not something I wanted to do. However, if that is your thing, check out the hashtags #purplehair and #pinkhair. Also take a look at the Instagram account called Silverishing, she uses purple tint along with her grays and it looks so fun and funky! She has a couple pics of when her hair was shorter and it was really cute, you might be able to find some inspiration from her account.
Q. Anything other advice?
A. When I was coloring my hair, I felt like my hair (in hindsight) looked one dimensional–almost like a wall of color. Now that I no longer color my hair, I think I look better because the various shades of gray, black, brown, give my hair more life and sense of movement. Colored hair made me look like a younger version of myself (which at some point actually starts to age a person) but now that I don’t color my hair, I look more like myself–the self I have grown into over the years. It’s kind of like continuing to wear your high school t-shirt for 30 years . . . no one looks at us and thinks we are still in high school, the colors are faded, the shirt looks worn, it doesn’t make sense to keep wearing that shirt. Coloring my hair felt like that–like I was trying to be my former self.
What questions do you have about going gray? What tips did I miss that you would add based on your journey? Let me know in the comments and good luck on your journey!