(Hair)

The Ultimate Guide To Embracing & Maintaining Naturally Gray Hair

Don’t stress — it happens to all of us.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: A guest wears sunglasses, a white top with printed large polka dots, during London Fashion Week September 2019 on September 16, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)

There is one particular beauty standard that leaves many of women (and men) of all ages shuddering with worry: when your natural hair color finally goes gray. For decades, the beauty industry has created a myriad of at-home kits and salon treatments to fight a bodily process that’s 100% natural (and, newsflash: inevitable), creating yet another unrealistic beauty standard that’s helped turn the anti-aging beauty industry in the United States into the $58.5 billion market it is today.

However, the past year shows that many people are cancelling their hair dye appointments and embracing their grays. According to data from a Wella WeCreate Trend Survey, 38% of those who said their hair changed during the pandemic say they let their hair turn gray, with celebrities from Tracee Ellis Ross to Brooklyn Decker recently joining the club.

The past year under quarantine has inarguably influenced many people to rethink their beauty routines in favor of more minimalist, approachable options, albeit because salons were largely shut down. But will this embrace of naturally silver strands last when salons are fully opened and you can face your mask-less reflection in the mirror? Lynn Shabinsky, yoga instructor and gray hair influencer, certainly hopes so.

“I go out and I see these beautiful women just rocking their hair and it just makes me gush,” says the graying pioneer who hasn’t touched hair dye for 13 years. “I just am so proud of how strong women have become and the empowerment that they get from embracing something that feels real to them rather than fighting it.”

After being a self-described “prisoner” to hiding the grays on her head, Shabinsky decided to ditch expensive and time-consuming hair-dyeing sessions to let her natural grays shine through.

“I was just about 45 [years old]. I'd been dying my hair since I was young because I was gray early,” she says. “And I have three daughters that are beautiful, but they're in that world of craziness, that competition of trying to be the best. And I just felt like it was time for me to make a statement that I'm not afraid to be something other than what everybody else does.”

And now, thanks to the work of Shabinsky and many other gray hair advocates across social media, there’s a plethora of people across the globe to look to for inspiration. But like all hair types and shades, gray hair does require a bit of maintenance in order to look and feel its best. So, if you’re in need of some assistance, allow the following silver hair experts to walk you through the science behind gray strands, plus how to maintain them without a hint of brassiness in sight.

Gray Hair Guide: Why Does Hair Go Gray?

Although you likely know that age and graying are correlated, certified trichologist, hair colorist, and founder of Root Cause Scalp Analysis Bridgette Hill says there’s a variety of factors that cause it.

“Gray hair, medically known as canities, occurs as a result of the aging process and is due to a reduction in melanocyte (pigmentation) function,” says Hill. “It is believed that the decline in the amino acid tyrosine has the largest impact on the pigmentation function.”

Hill says that, for the most part, graying is genetically predetermined. However, she says other factors like stress, nervous conditions, hormonal imbalances, poor diet, and gastrointestinal illnesses can contribute to graying.

Though you can technically gray at any age, premature graying is something that happens — in fact, a 2018 study found that up to 23% of people will be 50% gray by the time they’re 50. According to Hill, premature and early graying is believed to be attributed to organ-specific autoimmune diseases such as pernicious anemia and hyperthyroidism. Whether or not you see silver hair prematurely, there is some comfort in the great equalizing fact that we will all eventually go gray.

Gray Hair Guide: How To Care For Gray Hair

Like most lighter hair colors, caring for gray hair can turn slightly brassy if you’re not careful. Gray hair also has a slightly wiry texture that requires a bit more TLC. That being said, it’s not terribly high maintenance to tame. Take Shabinsky, for example: since starting her gray hair journey, she hasn't touched a single styling product. She says her go-to’s are simply shampoo and a conditioning mask, both formulated to hydrate and counteract yellow brassy tones (think purple shampoos, similar to what you’d use as a blonde to protect your color, among other options).

“Amika makes a fabulous hair mask and they have a whole line called Bust Your Brass,” she says. “Pantene came out with a line that’s available at drugstores that totally brightens up your hair. So there are so many things on the market now that you don't have to use anything other than a brightening shampoo to make it look whiter and brighter.”

However, everyone’s hair is different, so if you feel like your hair could use a boost from more products, that’s totally okay! But before you dive into products, be sure to take the time (either alone or with the help of a hair stylist or expert) to really get to know your specific tone of gray.

Gray Hair Guide: Know Your Gray Hair Color

As you may know, gray hair isn’t one particular shade of gray. Hill says that grays can manifest in different shades, and she groups them as follows:

  • Ash Gray: This shade has a slightly duller and darker base color as the dominant tone with scatters of pristine white hair. You may have heard of “salt & pepper” hair — that falls into this category.
  • Silver Gray: A dominant tone of pristine white hairs with scatters of ash gray.
  • Bright White Gray: Predominately white hairs with little-to-no dark base color throughout.

If you’re not touching any hair dye, this information might not mean much to you. However, Hill notes that it’s especially important to know your gray tone if you’re planning on creating a transitional color to minimize the stark contrast between your natural hair color and your gray hair color. Highlights can help with this. According to Wella Professionals Chief Blonding Officer and stylist ambassador Zach Mesquit, highlights can do wonders to boost the look of grays. “The best way to transition to gray is to start getting platinum highlights in the areas of your hair that naturally have more gray,” he says. “This will help the transition be much more seamless.”

Hill elaborates, stating that “As a colorist, I encourage the client to integrate some of those pieces [that have] natural pigmentation into their overall hair color. [It] should complement one’s skin tone and eye color. There are ways to manipulate gray hair to achieve a flattering color hue for the client.”

For hair that is silver gray, she suggests highlighting the hair to lift any dull, flat base tones — that will add brightness to the white hairs, which create beautiful platinum cool blonde tones throughout.

As for pure bright white gray hair tones, the approach all depends on how the color matches your skin tone and eye color, says Hill. “If the pure white hair color washes out the client’s natural skin coloring, I add depth with painting in low lights to add dimension,” she says. “If the white hairs are flattering to the skin and eye color, I gloss the hair to minimize dullness and keep it bright.”

Gray Hair Guide: Toning Shampoos and Conditioners Are A Must

To battle brassiness, both Mesquit and Hill agree that a shampoo-conditioner duo that focuses on toning your strands is non-negotiable in your shower or bath routine.

“Gray-haired clients should keep a brightening shampoo and conditioner in their hair care arsenal to help counteract the dullness in color that may be a result of heat styling or mineral buildup in the hair fibers,” says Hill. Remember the color wheel theory here — yellow is the opposite of purple, so any products that have a purple tint can eliminate those unwanted tones. Depending on the formulation, you can use them every shampoo, but be mindful of how strong the added pigment is — you might end up with a head of purple hair. Try every other way to be safe in the beginning.

Gray Hair Guide: Target What’s Causing Your Brassiness

Using constant toning products will do little to nothing for your hair if you’re not addressing the underlying issues that are causing it to turn brassy, and according to celebrity hairstylist Cheryl Bergamy, there are quite a few causes to keep in mind.

“Chemical services like perms and relaxers cause brass due to oxidation. Health conditions, medical issues, and a bad diet can also attribute to gray hair turning yellow,” she says. She also notes that premature graying, usually partnered with hair loss, may be caused by a hormonal imbalance. If that’s the case, you should consult with your doctor before taking further action.

Hill also brings up an important and often overlooked factor that plays a role in brassiness: the water you’re using to wash your hair. “Gray-haired clients should invest in water filters because minerals from hard water attach to the white hairs and create a yellowish tint on the hair fibers,” she says.

Gray Hair Guide: Hydration Is Key

Hydration is important for all hair types, but Bergamy says it’s especially crucial for gray hair in order to avoid issues like brittleness and frizz — even more so if you have naturally wavy, curly, or coily hair. “The hair can become frizzy or coarser as the hair is transitioning to gray, especially with textured hair which is already on the coarser side,” she says. That’s why you might see your gray strands standing upright, in contrast to the rest of your natural texture.

Bergamy recommends using a moisturizing treatment, such as her favorite, the L'Oréal Professionnel Absolut Repair Gold Quinoa Protein Instant Resurfacing Masque. She suggests following it up with the Contents Style & Go Leave-in Conditioner for an added hydration boost post-shower.

Gray Hair Guide: Use A Hair Gloss

Are your white strands looking a little lackluster? Then Bergamy suggests using a clear color gloss, which will help bring back the gorgeous sheen without causing excess damage, which is especially important if you color-treat your grays.

“While the hair is turning gray, the hair will start to look dull,” says Bergamy. “Using a clear color gloss works wonders. It gives the grays as well as the rest of the hair a beautiful shine. My favorite color gloss to use is Madison Reed Shine Reviving Gloss.”

Just remember that going gray is a process, physically and emotionally, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling unsure about how to begin caring for your newly silver hair. Just like anything else in the world of hair products and treatments, it’s all about finding what works for you. Couple a few expert suggestions with the unbridled confidence that gray is gorgeous, and you’re more than prepared to face the world as a flawless silver fox.

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