How to Go Gray and Ditch the Dye for Healthier Hair
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Lifestyle

Ditch the Dye! The Very Best Way to Go Gray

How it can make you look and feel younger.

Grey haired woman profile, cropped.
Getty Images

I’d like to say that it was words from a wise, older woman that finally made me embrace my graying hair, but that’s not true. It was a 20-something young stylist with tattoos and a partially shaved head who told me what I needed to hear: Ditch the dye! You’ll look better.

Like many women, I said bye to the dye during the two-plus years of the COVID quarantine. After all, who was going to see me? Plus, I was saving a bunch of money and no longer had the scary amount of hair loss and reddened, sensitive scalp problems that the coloring chemicals seemed to cause. Obviously, my scalp and hair were much happier, but what about my vanity?

I began to waver in my go-gray decision once hair salons began opening for business again. My long hair was now 50 percent dark salt-and-pepper and the rest a somewhat lighter dyed brown. My stylist kept urging me to get lowlights and highlights to better blend in the gray. My husband said to leave the gray alone; he liked it.

So, I dithered. After all, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is still a brunette at age 82. And 76-year-old legend Cher is adamant about never going gray. “It’s fine for other girls. I’m just not doing it,” she told People magazine in January.

On the other hand, beautiful actress Andie MacDowell, 64, told Vogue magazine last year that she ignored her manager’s advice to keep coloring her long, dark curls and instead debuted her salt-and-pepper mane on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, to great acclaim.

I was still fretting about these first-world problems while visiting my out-of-town daughter, and I decided to get a trim at a local salon. The place was crazy busy that day, but they worked me in with one of their most popular young stylists.

When it was my turn, I blathered on about just needing a trim, and maybe something to tone down all the gray coming in. The young woman laughed: “Nope. You need 3 inches of the damaged, dyed part of your hair cut off so you only have the healthy hair that’s growing in.” I must have looked shocked, because she added, “Trust me. You will look better. You need to embrace your gray. It’s who you are, so be you. Be proud.” And then she picked up the scissors.

Afterward, I will admit, my new bob did look better — shinier and prettier without the 3 inches of fried, brassy dyed hair. It also made me realize that a new set of eyes can be a good thing. I was hanging on to my old mental image of myself while my straight-shooting stylist saw a new image I was ignoring.

Katie Emery, 55, who writes the popular Katie Goes Platinum blog, knows these feelings of “Should I or shouldn’t I go gray?” all too well. She dyed her hair for years, she said in an interview, but by her late 40s, she was sick of it. “To be honest, it only really looked good for three days and then it got frizzy, and I had to touch up the roots again.” Still, it took her until she was just shy of her 51st birthday in 2018 when, “literally, overnight, I decided I was done.”

She opted to go cold turkey and started a blog to record the change from dark, dyed brown to a light, silvery gray. 

“Not having to worry about my hair color felt like a weight had been lifted,” she said, although not everyone in image-conscious Los Angeles, where she lives, was quite as appreciative. She recalled that her growing cap of white roots, which she made no effort to hide when she went out in public, “drove some people crazy. I remember getting coffee one day and a man stared at my roots for so long as he walked by, he crashed into a table.”

My friend Marla Paul, a writer in her 60s, also wanted to go gray, but worried it would make her look older than she felt. “But then I thought, ‘Why am I letting society dictate how I should see myself? Why can’t I go gray and still look cool?’”

As her roots grew out, she began wearing big, colorful earrings and other artisan jewelry to draw attention to — not away from — her long, wavy gray-and-white hair. “Women would stop me and say how much they loved my hair. It made me feel part of this silver sisterhood.”

Mark Wade, 60 is a sought-after L.A. hairstylist whose clientele includes many Hollywood stars. He encourages many of those women to go natural, and puts their worries to rest that they will look old with this advice: “Gray does read older, but not if you make going gray look purposeful,” he told me. “Get a stylish, edgy haircut that says, ‘I’m rocking it.’ Update your look, your makeup, and take pride in your age.”

Have you been considering letting your hair go gray? Our hair experts offer the following tips.

Going gray can make you look and feel younger.

“Silvery hair can really brighten your skin and make you look younger,” says blogger Emery. “Once you get rid of the ingrained idea that you must dye your hair, you begin to wonder what else you don’t have to put up with. A lot of women start new careers, and try new makeup and colors that enhance their new hair color.”

It can get you out of a style rut.

Been wearing the same hairstyle for decades? What worked in your 30s may not be the best for your looks and hair texture now, as gray hair can be coarser, frizzier or thinner. “You’ll need a style that will work with these changes,” says stylist Wade.

Gray hair needs some TLC.  

Gray, white or salt-and-pepper hair is more prone to yellowing from things like scorching-hot styling tools, the sun’s UV rays and even being washed in hard water, because of its high level of minerals, said David Ott, owner of the Vaughan Diann Salon and Spa in Annapolis, Maryland. He tells his clients to lower their blow-dryer temperature to medium, and make sure their curling or flat irons are no hotter than 300 degrees, preferably 260. “Wear a hat to protect hair from the sun when outdoors,” added Ott. “And don’t forget to apply a moisturizing mask or leave-in conditioner — especially for curly hair — to combat the increased dryness that can come with the gray.”

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