Would You Stop Coloring Your Hair?

By Andrea Karim on 20 November 2008 (Updated 4 February 2011) 28 comments

My hair started turning gray when I was a teenager. At first, it was just a weird little wiry white hair here and there. Then, a few longer strands. But it wasn't until I was 21, living on my own in the big city, that I noticed that I was really, really going gray. It wasn't a big deal — I was young and favored home coloring kits. I went from black to blonde to brown and over to red. It was fun.

As I got older, I started caring a bit more about the kinds of chemicals that I was putting on my hair and skin, so I decided to grow my gray out for a while. With shortly cropped hair, this didn't take long, and before long, I was able to march into the hairdresser and have the remaining colored ends trimmed away, revealing my now natural gray and light brown tresses. What should have been a fairly liberating moment was dampened only by the fact that I suddenly looked, after a few snips of hair had fallen away, about 15 years older than I actually was.

My face was suddenly washed out. Crow's feet that I had never noticed waved happily from the corners of my eyes. My cheeks, normally rosy and flushed, suddenly looked wan and sallow. Not only was I gray, I was unevenly gray. My dreams of having great streaks of white and gray strands across the top of a chic hairdo were crushed when I realized that I had inherited my father's hair color: white and gray in a big band that stretched from temple to temple along the back of my head, in a definite mimicry of what I would look like with male pattern baldness. To make matters worse, I only had some gray (mixed with a pale, mousy brown) on the top. I was no Helen Mirren, that's for damn sure.

I gulped, smiled bravely at my stylist, who was gazing worriedly at me in the mirror, and then ran home to dye my hair back to a flattering shade of chestnut. That was about three years ago.

Recently, I decided to give it a second try. Gray hair is tricky — it does age one's face. Men seem to get away with gray hair more readily than women. Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, and Anderson Cooper are just some examples of men I see in the media who wear gray hair very well. It's harder for women to get away with, partly because the popular media considers us largely past our prime by the time we hit 35, whereas men are still considered foxy and desirable well into their 50s (or... well, however Paul Newman was.... rrrrowr).

But even without cultural idiosyncrasies dancing around in our heads, there are certain indicators of youth that, when removed, are shocking. (Check out this doctored photo of what Condoleezza Ricewould look like with gray hair.) Other odd things that make or break one's youthful look? Longer canine teeth and full lips. Who knew, right?

Anyway, this time I am sticking with the gray, both for the sake of saving $75 every three weeks, and also to be free from the tyranny of having to constantly alter so much of my appearance to suit society's needs. I already shave my legs and wear makeup and style my hair and wear deodorant and all other kinds of things to make myself societally acceptable (you're welcome). In a way, I feel like I'm giving myself a break.

I won't say that I'm 100% comfortable with my hair right now. When I wear my tan trench coat, I am convinced that I look like Colombo. Whenever I put on reading glasses, I truly feel like I am channeling my inner, elderly librarian (not that librarians don't rock — they do). At 31, I sometimes feel like I should be wearing bold, daring colors and multiple nose rings, but the truth is, I'm too lazy to maintain an eccentric personal style. I wear black not because I am chic, but because I spill coffee down the front of my shirt every single morning. So allowing my body to do the things that it seems ready to do is a natural choice. And easy choice. A really, really lazy choice.

And I'm happy with lazy.

Below are some beauty tips I've compiled from a variety of other online articles about how to decorate your face once you let your grays grow out. These actually do make a bit of a difference in countering the slightly aging effect of my hair.

  • If you have fair skin, you may need to consider a slightly darker foundation. Just a smidge darker, nothing too orangey.
     
  • You will need more blush. Period. Highlight those cheekbones and don't be afraid of those slightly iridescent highlighting creams that are meant to make you look all dewy and youthful.
     
  • Don't fake tan or apply bronzer. Unless you have an olive complexion or very warm tones in your non-grey hair, brown and tan tones look oddly muddy against white or gray hair.
     
  • Some people will tell you that you can no longer where bright shades of eye shadow or lipstick. This is certainly true for me, but there's no reason why you can't experiment a bit.
     
  • Try colors that never looked good on you. I could never wear blue mascara before I went gray. Now, it actually looks really good, and not at all like a throwback to the 1980s. I used to favor burgundy eye shadows, but now they make me look a bit like a vampire, so I've toned them down to warm mauves and lots of soft pinks, which make me look all glowing and lovely.
     
  • Devote effort to your eyebrows. They now work to frame your face more than ever. Keep them professionally manicured (this, fortunately, doesn't cost more than $15-20).
     
  • Gray hair can be coarse and brittle. Condition it like mad, and rinse it well.
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Myscha Theriault's picture

Good for you, Andrea, for being comfortable enough to even go there. I can't say that I am brave enough to let go myself, but kudos to you and others who go for it.

Guest's picture
MKB

I found that getting highlights occasionally (I do every 3-4 months) keeps things looking a little more youthful and colorful, and is MUCH cheaper than keeping the whole thing dyed. That said, I've been contemplating ditching even that (to save the money, basically). This is a timely article - thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

After some 40 years, I stopped torturing my hair. Occasionally I shampoo in a little bleach, leaving it in only a couple of minutes. This lighten all of it. Silver streaks look like they were done professionally.

Guest's picture
Allie

Congratulations for moving into the lazy-with-your-appearance camp! I've been living in this tent a while.

- I shave my legs quarterly (yes, quarterly. Oddly, the longer you do this, the less hair you grow)
- I do not use make-up (I am too lazy to do the work)
- I do not dye my hair
- I do use deodorant (yay!)
- I do not iron clothes
- I do not style my hair (in fact, I only wash it 1-2x/week, and only w/ vinegar)
- I wear the same style of shirt every day, and the same type of jeans, so I never have to figure out if I match or am fashionable (every few years I'm fashionable for a season or two, the rest of the time I'm not)

I am the queen of appearance lazy, and it seems to get worse every year. But it is so very liberating. Good luck getting used to the grey!

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm 47 years old and have never covered my gray hair. I actually like it. A couple of years ago, my eyebrows started going gray too. I actually like that as well, lol. I'm fortunate in that I have a round full face and I'm a bit short; people regularly mistake me for 30something, even with the gray. I think if more women would stop coloring their hair, it would become more acceptable for women to age naturally. I may be luckier than some because I'm not actually even going gray; my hair is going white. EmmyLou Harris and Mike McDonald both look wonderful with white and/or gray hair, so if you need encouragement just look at them.

Guest's picture
TK

The timing of your article couldn't have made me laugh more...I was sitting here tonight thinking that I'm having dinner tomorrow with friends I haven't seen in awhile, and crap, my gray roots are worse than I thought. I was getting ready to do a Walgreens run which I so didn't feel like doing so I figured I'd see what my Wisebread friends were up to tonight, and there you were...Congrats to you - I wish I could do it - but I'm 49 and I don't know if I could pull it off without looking like my grandma.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am 53 years old, married for 30 years, and have never colored or highlighted my hair. I am totally grey and have earned every one of those grey hairs, ha! ha!

I grew up with a rather vane mother who had to go to what I called "the beautiful shop" every week, and dyed her hair blonde every three weeks. She still does, and she is 79 years old.

I never wanted the expense or the hassle. I love it, and even my naturally blonde 26 year old daughter thinks my hair looks great!

Guest's picture
Guest

Sorry....I meant vain, not vane!

Guest's picture
Chance

Great timing on this post. I'm 55, with classic salt and pepper hair. As part of debt reduction, I have given up professional hair coloring and let my grey hair grow out. Hey, I'm a feminist, grey is good. My hair looks fine, and I am happy with the way I look. But now I'm scared, really scared, about work, and in my field, age discrimination is quite real. Blessed with youthful skin, dying my hair makes me look considerably younger. Never dyed my hair at home, but I just got a box of clairol and learning to do it is my weekend project. I really resent having to do it, but reality matters so I'm going for it. Working for a world when age is not stigmatized is my mission.

Guest's picture

I'm 44 and quit coloring my hair a couple of years ago. I get so many more compliments on my hair now than I ever did before! I get compliments from my mom (who still colors her hair at 75), from friends, and even from strangers!

Like Allie above, I also don't bother with makeup and don't style my hair. Although both would only take minutes out of my day, they are minutes I'd rather spend doing something else.

My husband dislikes the made-up look (he likes natural), so this works out really well for me. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

I think a lot of people's gray hair is due to lifestyle stress and nutritional deficiencies, in particular, mineral deficiencies. Do a web search for 'gray hair' and copper and see what you find. I've been taking mineral supplements for 20 years, and at age 49 have to pluck only the odd gray/white hair. Everyone thinks I color my hair, but I don't. An old farmer saw me and my dark haired kids one day and commented, "Your family must get a lot of copper in your diet!"

Guest's picture
Marion

I love this post! I am 51 and just a few months ago decided to "freshen" myself up ...

No greys but a dishwater brown haircolor - a full head of low lights (vs. highlights) that will be retouched in 4 months along with a snappy new hairdo.

Started a simple routine of face care: cleanser, toner and moisturizer.

Out with all the old makeup - found out about mineral makeup and just love it. A foundation, blush, mascara, lipstick and eyeshadow goes on everyday.

Drink more water. Eat whole foods. And the most fun: bought a Wii Fit and exercise everyday now. Also started taking a good multi-vitamin.

Made all my check up appointments in one month. While at the dentist had my teeth professionally whitened.

Here is the most important and free beauty tip I found out quiet a while ago: A smile, kind word, and sparkle in the eye. It's all about attitude :)

Guest's picture

I started graying about 3 years ago (well, that's when I NOTICED it). I'm 28 now, and though I'm not graying enough for anyone else to notice, I am certainly noticing, especially in the front peak of my hair.

I used to dye my hair blonde, because I was always a dirty blonde. Now I'm some sort of dark brown color, but my hair was so dry and brittle from all of the dying that I knew I had to stop. So I started growing it out in August 2005. This saved me about $100 every 3 months.

I discovered, by the recommendation of a friend, using henna to dye hair. You can use it to dye it red, black, or even use neutral henna which is meant for lighter colored hair, but doesn't actually dye your hair blonde.

What I loved about this stuff is it was cheaper (about $35/quarter for my length which is past my shoulders), it was actually healthy for my hair, and it covered up grays REALLY well.

My hair was so dry before, and is so amazingly silky now after using henna for the last year. I'll never go back to anything else, and I still don't have to put up with gray hair. It really compliments my natural brown with some reddish highlights and an awesome sheen.

If you're ever interested in checking it out, there's a site that was created by a woman who studied henna for some thesis of hers and also sells the stuff: http://www.hennaforhair.com

Guest's picture
Vickie

I started graying when I was 19. I began to cover up the gray around the age of 32. Before that time I just had great looking natural highlights. I colored my hair until last year. I decided that at 47 I was going to see how gray I actually was. My dad has that beautiful white, silver hair. Sure enough that is what my hair is like in the front. It is salt and pepper in the back. I LOVE IT! I happened to comment on our local newspapers fashion editors blog one day when she was talking about this very subject and she did a story on women going gray and I had the opportunity to be a part of that project.

I have a young face and most people are shocked when they find out I am 48 years of age. I think a lot has to do with your attitude. This is what works for me:
Use a purple shampoo made just for gray hair.
Increase your eye makeup, eyeliner, etc.
Enhance your brows!
I wear funky, chunky black glasses. The contrast is amazing.
Wear bright colors!!!
Don't forget your lips!
I keep my hair in a short hairstyle and it really enhances rather than detracts from my overall look.
Embrace the new look! Not many women can do this and feel great about it. I have had more of my friends say they wished they could do what I have done but just can't bring themselves to do it.

Great post!! I really enjoyed it!

Guest's picture
DivaJean

I am a product of being a teen in the 80's. I started having my hair dyed at age 15- first highlights, then eventually into higlighting/lowlighting. About 6 years ago, I decided enough was enough. It wasn't right for me to scrimp on just about everything- then go and blow $80 on hair every 4- 6 weeks. I just up and stopped. I got my hair cut as short as I would tolerate and let the hair coloring grow out. It only took about 4 months of meh hair- then I had a completely different coloring than I had thought I had. Back at 15, my natural hair had been a more sandy brown- now in my 40's--- its DARK brown, bordering on a black. My greys are still somewhat scattered, but I can look to my mom and see how my hair will eventually become a beautiful salt & pepper. With my coloring in its natural state, I have had to relook at my makeup and coloring of clothing. In the 6 years since I did this, I have systematically rid myself of clothes that have colors no longer flattering with my dark hair. I had enough sandy tan clothing that had looked good with the highlighted hair- but looked BAD with my naturally dark hair. All I did was over time, just buy things that fit into my natural color palate better. I find now that jewel tones and "winter" colors are more flattering. This was not necessarily an added expense of letting my hair go natural-- as I brought in the appropriate colored clothes gradually, as I was needing to get new clothes anyway.

I have similarly switched my hairdo to a much more maintenance free style. Bangs I can trim myself and long hair. I get crookedy bangs every couple months and then go for $5 bang trims at Supercuts to get ack on track. (I style the bangs to the side anyways- so perfection is not required, but sometimes, I get WAY off course from perfection!) I would say I now spend maybe $30 total on my hair cuts/year-- two bangs trims and maybe two haircuts (to keep my long hair trimmed maybe twice a year).

Guest's picture
Guest

I let my hair grow out to shoulder length and go gray (and I'm really gray/silver!) about 2 years ago. I'm 53 now and have been pretty gray since 35, but always spent the time and money to color.

I actually have women stop me in the street to talk about going gray. The funniest incident was DURING a mammogram, when the technician (who had beautiful short silver hair) decided to stop and chat about gray hair during the most uncomfortable part of the procedure :)

I do notice that I've had to change my clothing colors and be sure to add blusher in the mornings. I have dark glass frames and really like the contrast.

I should add that my husband colors his hair (we have hairdressers on both sides of the family). I worry that people will think I'm much older than him, but hey, guess they'll just think I landed a younger man!

Guest's picture
merrily

I am actually getting my hair cut and foiled tonight. Right now I have turquois blue streaks in my hair and will either keep that or go with a fuschia-y color. I do this about 3 times a year. The way my stylist does it, isn't so noticeable when it grows out and looks very professional...but punk rock which is what I was going for. I have to do a conditioning treatment every week because I abuse my hair with blow drying, flat ironing and product. When I condition I put the dye in with it, that way I get manageable hair and a color touch up.

For me, it's money well spent and a small splurge every once in a while.

Guest's picture
Rhonda

Great post! It was great to hear all the tips on how to adjust to going gray. I'm 48 and have dark blond hair. I highlight it at home very infrequently, and usually share one kit with my sister or my daughter, so it averages about 6 bucks about every 8-12 weeks. So far that has made the gray blend in pretty well. I have noticed lately though that the top of my head is a much "cooler" or "ashy" shade than the bottom, so I've been pondering how to address that (and of course hoping I can do it inexpensively at home). I'll check back to see if anybody has any tips!

Guest's picture
Jan

I am sorry able your early gry hair. Hang in there you'll catch up to it agewise! I am 65 and still have just flecks of gray and yes, folks think I am younger. Tell my achy body that. LOL

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm so jealous of you ladies with the lovely salt and pepper locks! Alas, my hair isn't destined for such greatness. I do think that when it grows out, though, it will look more feminine.

Guest's picture
Guest

I started finding gray hairs when I was a teenager and started coloring regularly after college. I was always too cheap to go for the salon color, and too busy to do the home color kit very often. I stopped a couple years ago (age 35) when I realized that I looked worse with the roots than I would if I just embraced my gray hair. Some people think I'm nuts and that I should take time to "pamper" myself with regular haircoloring. I'd just much rather pamper myself in other ways.

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

I used to have straight medium-brown hair with red highlights; post-chemo, it's wavy and dark chestnut (and finally matches my brows) with lots of glinty silver. I used to get highlights before I had cancer, but now my stylist tells me not to highlight nor color my hair. Being (now) frugal and lazy, I am happy to follow her advice.

BTW, my oncologist was very interested in my hair the last time I saw her. She told me that some women want to go through chemo for the hair benefits. I do NOT recommend this.

Guest's picture

My hair is a disaster. I'll be 41 in the next few days and when I was young, I was (operative word here is 'was') blessed with beautifully thick, straight and very silky chestnut locks. My first grays were thick and wiry and now the front area, where my bangs are, are these thin fly-away cotton like hairs that stick in all directions. The remaining grays continue to live in their wiry existence, despite the heavy conditioning I douse them with.

No. My grays are anything but attractive and while I still color my hair, my appearance is anything but youthful as well.

I've been to several professionals who even confess that my situation is hopeless. I thought perhaps a perm might at least force them into more tame looking ringlets, but those same professionals have said that this will not be.

I don't think natural gray suits me at all. The remaining "natural" colored hair is much darker than my original. I am very fair skinned, almost chalk white, and I am now repeatedly asked if I am Eastern European... which is strange given my Irish roots.

*sigh* I just wish I knew where to take the next step.

Guest's picture
typome

I have the same situation as you. I started growing premature gray hairs in high school, and, at almost 29 next month, I have patches of noticeable gray hair. I inherited it from my dad's side. It's good to know that I'm not alone! =) I plan on having kids in the future, and one of the rules is that I can't dye my hair for the first 3 months of pregnancy. Ouch. That is almost 2" of gray roots. I'll be wearing lots of hats! Or snipping away a strand or two a day.

On a more positive note, my hairdresser told me that people with premature gray hair tend to have the shimmering white hair when they're older, as opposed to the "muddy gray" that most people transition into.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've been asking myself lately just how long I can continue to color my hair before people start to snicker when I walk by. I am 55 and luckily have aged well up to this point. My mother did also and often had folks tell her she couldn't be as old as she told them she was. Although, that being said, she colored long after she should have stopped and it looked painfully silly.

I started having it done by my hair dresser's, but I disliked the time I had to spend there...........I don't enjoy the "social time". I had better things to do. I do it now at home and it makes me feel better mentally, even though I still resent the time involved. I am starting to show my age more and have been contemplating how and when I need to grow old gracefully. I'm still on the fence.

I also always read that older women shouldn't have long hair because it ages them, but I am letting mine grow out for awhile. I don't look good in short hair and believe it or not, my hair is easier to take care of when it's long. I want easy so eventually I may stop coloring, but I'm just not there yet.

Guest's picture
Rainbowridergrma

I sympathize with those who cannot stop coloring their hair because of their job. Whether we like it or not, there is prejudice against older workers. Seven years ago, I was comfortable enough with the place I worked, that I stopped coloring mine. Two years later I met my adorable husband. We are full-time rv'ers. My hair is browner now than back in my 40's. I am 65. I have to agree with several who said stress and diet make your hair grayer. And not only is dying your hair costly and time-consuming, but is really hard on your hair and skin. My hair is shinier and thicker now-Yeah! Good Luck to all who bite the bullet and stop dying.

Guest's picture
THOR

FWIW, I laud you.

Guest's picture
Aimee Hossler

I started getting gray hair in high school and have been dying my hair pretty much since then. I am currently dying my hair black and amazed how much gray is coming in all over. I think I would be gray all over it I let it grow. I'm only 33 and have to color my hair every couple weeks. To keep cost down, I will use a box at home in between salon appointments or use this great Bumble and Bumble color spray in the mornings to cover the roots on my part. This is getting tiring but I'm not sure I'm ready to let it grow out. At 33 should I let it grow out?