The decision to go gray is a personal one. It’s not for everyone, but for those who embrace the grays, it can be so empowering. Despite what some people might think, though, committing to gray hair doesn’t mean you necessarily have to accept your new color as is. There are multiple ways to blend, accentuate, and modify the look of naturally gray hair via subtle highlighting (and low-light) techniques. You just have to know what to ask for when it comes time to sit in the salon chair and get highlights for your gorgeous gray hair.
First things first: It’s important to turn to an expert colorist who has experience working with gray hair, since lifting and blending artificial color can be challenging (but certainly not impossible) according to master colorist Sharon Dorram of Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger Salon. “There can be some challenges when it comes to coloring and highlighting gray hair. It’s important to work with a skilled colorist who understands that the texture of your hair, as well as the amount of gray you have, will affect the end result,” she says. Chase Kusero, Co-founder of IGK Hair Care, agrees, adding “Gray hair is more resistant and usually requires extra processing time.”
It’s also important to remember that highlights aren’t meant to cover gray hair — only blend and accentuate it, and that it’s wise to have a general color goal in mind that includes showing off some grays. Richy Kandasamy, expert colorist and R+Co Collective Member, says understanding the end result will help you and your colorist decide on the best technique to use. “To ensure the most natural and low maintenance gray experience, it is important to have a thorough consultation so you and your colorist are on the same page,” he says. “Make sure to explain your commitment to maintenance and lifestyle, as this can help determine the best approach of color technique and also the color product your hairdresser will use to blend your gray hair.”
Now, without further ado, here are three highlighting techniques experts recommend for gray hair.
The Face Frame Technique For Gray Hair
According to expert colorist and Matrix brand ambassador, George Papanikolas, this technique is best suited for people who are naturally blonde or dark blonde, as “highlights will not cover gray, but the lighter strands can help with blending and diffuse the gray, especially for lighter hair.”
Since most people tend to start showing natural gray hair at the temples, Papanikolas says face-framing highlights can easily blend grays with color so there’s no harsh line of demarcation. They can also help soften regrowth, which could potentially extend the time between salon appointments. (Who doesn’t love low-maintenance color?)
If you have darker hair, Papanikolas doesn’t recommend this technique as it could end up looking somewhat severe or unnatural. “On darker levels, you won't get any coverage, and super blonde highlights at the roots can look harsh and don't work as well,” he says.
Still, if you decide to go this route, there are some things to keep in mind. The first thing is that these face-framing highlights should be used to accent your color — not cover it. The second thing is that it’s best to get them done about every three months or so to maintain the soft, blended effect — any more frequently could damage your hair (remember that highlights involve bleaching your hair). As Papanikolas explains, “The biggest issue of using highlights in place of gray coverage is there is a high chance that you will be coming in more often than every three months and you can easily start to over-process the hair. You also have a higher chance of becoming too blonde, which can look harsh, especially if you are naturally a brunette.”
The High-Low Technique For Gray Hair
Expert colorist and Matrix brand ambassador, Rachel Bodt, is a fan of the high-low technique for blending grays, which uses a mix of highlights and lowlights (highlights are small sections of lighter color, whereas low lights are small sections of darker color) to achieve a natural-looking result. The combination of the two tones adds depth and dimension to the hair. “It’s about adding highs and lows so that there isn’t a strong line of demarcation,” Bodt says. Kusero agrees that this technique is best for anyone who’s going gray and wants a lot of visual dimension in their hair. “The combination of highlights and lowlights allow you to have beautiful hair color while embracing your gray.”
As for which tones will prove most flattering, that’s hard to say. “This is all depending on skin tone as well as what you want the gray to do,” she says. “If you want it to be emphasized you will go towards the cooler tones; if you want it more blended you will add golden or beige tones.” Make sure to do a pre-appointment consultation with your colorist if you need help determining which route to take — cool tones to emphasize or warm tones to blend.
And one more thing — make sure you’re sticking with highlights and lowlights only. If you commit to all-over color, you won’t be enhancing your naturally gray tones at all — you’ll effectively cover them up. “Make sure they aren’t doing a single process or base break [a process that completely lightens natural hair color and regrowth] as this will get rid of all your natural color,” Bodt says.
The Salt & Pepper Technique For Gray Hair
This technique is similar to the high-low technique in that it involves some skilled highlighting and low-lighting. This time, though, it’s all about softening the look of gray hair to achieve a super blended result. As such, this technique is best for anyone who craves a blended, natural-looking result, regardless of whether you were previously naturally blonde or brunette.
As Dorram explains, “If you’re looking to soften the look of your gray hair, but don’t want to commit to all-over color, you can keep it low maintenance by ‘camouflaging’ the gray. At Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, we do this by highlighting the ‘pepper’ in your salt-and-pepper hair and/or painting out the ‘salt’ with a lowlight.”
The technique is basically a form of color correcting — by toning down the sharp silvery strands and brightening up the darker “peppery” ones, you get a more uniform color. “A skilled colorist will play with highlighting and low-lighting techniques to achieve your desired look,” Dorram says. “If you are mostly gray then we would focus primarily on lowlights. Lowlights works to lessen the impact of the gray and visually reel back the years.” On the flip side, if you have more dark strands or “pepper” in your hair, then you’ll likely need more highlights than lowlights.
Again, the pre-appointment consult is everything. Dorram recommends being clear with your colorist about the look you’re going for and even bringing in pictures for a visual depiction of your goal. “To ensure you get the result you’re looking for it’s always helpful to bring inspiration pictures to share with your colorist,” she says. “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
How To Choose The Most Complementary Gray Tones
When choosing which highlight and lowlight tones you want to end up with, Kusero says it’s important to pay attention to your other features — namely your eye color and skin tone. For anyone who has cool-toned skin and blue eyes, he recommends keeping your highlights and lowlights cool-toned as well, as it will complement your other features. In the same vein, then, people with warmer skin tones and those of us who have brown eyes might consider going a bit warmer, complementing their gray with gold-beige tones for the best result. Again, this is something your colorist will be able to help you with if you need direction.
How To Care For & Maintain Gray Hair
Minimize Environmental Stressors
According to Dorram, caring for gray hair means doing away with alcohol-based hair products. “[These] can strip color and turn it brassy,” she says. “Avoid sun and chlorine exposure as well; they can also leave your color looking brassy.” To avoid sun exposure, you can use UV-protecting hair products, or, go back to basics and wear a hat if you know you’ll be outside for a long time.
Invest In Toning Products
Speaking of brassiness, each expert recommends investing in a purple color-correcting product to neutralize unwanted warm tones (this is important even if you chose warmer gray tones during your appointment, as gray hair can appear more yellow over time). As Kusero puts it, “purple toning products are great to neutralize any unwanted brass [tones].”
Pile On The Moisture
Finally, opt for plenty of moisturizing hair products to keep your color-treated hair healthy. “Gray hair craves moisture,” Kusero says. This is because, as hair loses its pigment and turns gray over time, the scalp produces less oil and the cuticle of the hair changes. “Less oil and the change in texture can leave gray hair more prone to dryness and needing more moisturizing and smoothing products,” he says. “I recommend nourishing, moisturizing products that hair can drink up while also controlling frizz.”
Shop Expert-Recommended Products For Gray Hair With Highlights
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