Going gray… sharing my experience

First haircut

First haircut – to a long, asymetrical bob.

The first time I inquired about going gray to my wonderful stylist of many (many!) years, she reacted with horror. What woman in her right mind wants to let her hair go gray? No, I was told, you don’t want to let your gray show until the grays far outnumber your existing color. It will look mousey and drab. It will age you. It just won’t look good. Properly chastened, I accepted her advice at face value and continued coloring.

Now, I have dark brown hair – almost black – which shows every little gray root very dramatically. In my single days, covering the gray was a no-brainer. I did it and was happy to do so. However, as the years went by, I noticed required root touch ups went from every six weeks to every five weeks to every four weeks. Maintenance was costly and time-consuming. I was now happily married and secure in my career, so I didn’t feel the need to color for those reasons. In addition, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, which puts a lot of life’s minor issues in perspective, not to mention that money was better spent on medical bills than coloring.

Three ways to go gray

I began to research going gray. Who’s doing it and why? More importantly, HOW are they doing it? I must say my blond friends have it much easier. Grays are less obvious. They may need no transitional interference or they may choose to add platinum highlights or gradually take their shade of blonde lighter and cooler. We dark-haired ladies have a struggle. Research revealed there were three main approaches:

  1. Stop coloring cold turkey and let your gray gradually grow out. Accept you will have oddly bi-colored hair for six months to a year or more, depending on length. Wear headbands, scarves and hats. Maybe even get a wig.
  2. Add in highlights and later lowlights to help blend the emerging gray with your original color.
  3. Chop it all off. Go very short and remove all the old, colored and likely over processed hair.

Some years earlier, I’d watched from afar as an acquaintance took option number one on her below shoulder-length dark hair. There are some purist “go gray” social media groups that insist this is the route you must take. We must suffer! We must accept our fate! We must embrace super-wide headbands. Kudos to the ladies who are strong enough to do this, but for me, there was no way. I kept remembering watching said acquaintance’s gray cap slowly inching down her head and it looked awful to me. She must have finally gotten sick of it herself, because I recall her cutting her long hair to around shoulder length toward the end of the process. I think it’s pretty common for women who go this route to finally reach a breaking point and they chop the rest of their colored hair off.

Shortest cut, prior to highlighting

Shortest cut, prior to highlighting

There was a time when I sported a Halle Berry pixie cut and got rave reviews on it. Thinking I might go with option three, I began cutting my hair shorter and shorter, against my husband’s wishes. I finally got to a longish pixie/bob when he pretty much put his foot down. To be honest, I don’t think the super short cut looked as good on me as it did 20 years ago. (Imagine that!) It takes quite a bit of bravery to make a drastic cut in length and, frankly, not everyone can pull it off.

But, I LIKE calico cats

So, that left me with option two, which is not without its own difficulties. Anyone with dark hair knows it’s very difficult to get platinum highlights – particularly if your dark hair has been colored dark repeatedly like mine had. You end up with oddly orange or frightening Tweety bird yellow highlights that have to be toned to something more normal. It’s also very hard on the hair. This is why the purist groups are very much against it. I pretty much got thrown off a private Facebook group, not realizing they felt so strongly about it; they had RULES against even talking about this method or posting pictures like I did. Whoops. Sorry! (Not sorry.)

The calico cat look

The calico cat look

Even after toning, I ended up with what I thought were unnatural greenish-yellow highlights and some reddish strands, rather than the gorgeous platinum I’d hoped for. I’ve heard this called the “calico cat look,’ with tricolor dark hair, reddish hair and silver/white grays. I bought some Aveda Clove Color Conditioner and began doing my own toning at home. It helped; however, you can’t just put it on in the shower like regular conditioner and rinse it right out. I would wash and towel dry my hair, then apply the conditioner to damp hair and let it sit for half an hour or more before rinsing it out. And I went through this process every other time I washed my hair. This helped blend the new highlights in so they looked more natural.

We had originally planned to do another round of “platinum highlights” a couple of months after the first round. Interestingly, my gray had grown out enough in two months that even my stylist was surprised at how attractive it looked and how well it was starting to blend. I was getting many compliments on my “highlights” and I finally learned to stop being honest to a fault and telling everyone, “I’m growing out my gray,” which would cause awkward silences. My stylist and I agreed the second round wasn’t necessary. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be free of the monthly coloring routine and expense.

Short shag epiphany

A highlighted shag

A highlighted shag

Now that I had a better idea of the growth pattern of my gray – mostly on the crown of my head, with a little around the temples – I had a breakthrough idea. Because I hadn’t waited until my hair was predominantly gray and because the gray I had was concentrated on the top of my head, why not add in a little dose of option three? Go with a new haircut that had short layers through the crown, removing most of the demarcation. A little research and I quickly was drawn to a layered shag haircut a la Lisa Rinna. Perfect. Short layers through the top get rid of old, colored hair and length on the sides and back is preserved, making my husband – and me – happy.

I plan to stick with this short shag until all of the dark, colored hair is gone and I’m left with my natural silver-highlighted brown. At a later date, I may choose to add some caramel highlights as I really like the way Lisa’s hair is highlighted and I think it brings out the cute texture of the cut. Going with a caramel highlight will look more natural on dark hair than the platinum we’d tried to achieve to match the gray. Also, once the repeatedly dyed hair is gone, it will be easier to lift color from virgin, unprocessed hair, should I go that route. Eventually, I may grow the length out a little, too, but will probably keep the overall shag shape.

Take homes for those embarking on this journey

  • I believe the highlights/lowlights route is the best option to transition comfortably while still maintaining an attractive, professional look.
  • If you have dark hair that’s been colored a lot, don’t expect even the most talented colorist to be able to give you truly platinum or silver highlights. You’ll see a lot of that on the web, but I suspect those are women who started with much lighter hair and/or majorly fried their hair with hours, if not days, of processing.
  • Color depositing conditioners are your friend.
  • Don’t wait until you’re mostly gray to start the transition. That will only make all of the challenges of blending and hiding the line of demarcation much tougher.
Blend of highlights and gray at the crown

Blend of highlights and gray at the crown

Share your experience and please let me know if any of this was helpful to you!

** How’s it going a year later? Check the updated blog post here. **

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