I was only 26 years old when I pulled the plastic gloves out of my first box of Nice’n Easy. Given that graying is largely determined by genetics, the early onset of those silver strands didn’t come as a total surprise. My father’s hair was almost completely white by his 40th birthday, and he couldn’t have cared less. I’d like to report that I was as unfazed as my dad but, the truth is, I’ve been faithfully covering up this pesky sign of aging for more years than I care to count.
And I’m hardly alone. In the first year of the pandemic, Americans spent 1.7 billion dollars on at-home hair color. But that’s just the tip of the color berg: We also spray our roots, experiment with highlights and lowlights, and sweep our hair into creative up-dos when we’ve let too many weeks pass between touch-ups.
Graying is a journey, and wherever you’re at in the inevitable process, you’ve got plenty of options as to how to proceed. Read on for tips on coloring strategies as well as some of the best products to use to color or simply enhance your silvery locks.
Covering Up Those First Strands
For women with less than 20% gray hair, a semi-permanent option, such as Clairol Natural Instincts ($8), will likely provide excellent coverage. Unlike permanent color, which has to grow out, these ammonia-free formulas wash out gradually over 24 shampoos and make experimenting with different shades less of a commitment.
If you want to quickly color your roots or hide a thick clump of silvery strands along your temples, try Clairol Root Touch-Up (about $14), a permanent (there’s a semi-permanent option, too) cream that restores color in just 10 minutes.
Prefer to leave your roots to the pros, but want to extend the time between salon visits? Color-depositing powders and sprays, like Rita Hazan Root Concealer Touch Up Spray ($12), are a brilliant, money-saving fix. You simply shake the can, aim and spray lightly over your grays. The sprays, which come in five colors, add texture to fine hair and stay put until your next shampoo.
Available in eight powders that you dab onto your grays, Color Wow Root Cover Up ($35) is also a good option and comes in a slim compact with a brush. “It’s one of the greatest products we’ve made,” says Color Wow Founder and CEO Gail Federici. “It’s easy to use, won’t transfer and will stay put even if you go swimming.”
Highlighting Your Way to Gray
Like a lot of women, I currently have more grays than not, and have graduated from bathroom dye jobs and root touch-ups to regular salon visits. I’ve also slowly morphed from a brunette to a blonde. Thanks to a mix of highlights and lowlights applied by a professional colorist, my grays now blend in more seamlessly and I can usually go almost three months without planting myself in a salon chair. Should my highlights and color start to look a little lackluster in the interim, I’ll hit refresh with Madison Reed’s Shine Reviving Gloss ($25) in Glassa, which adds instant shine and makes my hair feel really healthy—due to the keratin and argan oil in the gloss.
For a more dramatic “highlight,” channel blues musician Bonnie Raitt. Her distinctive gray forelock first came in when she was 24; by her early 40s, her gray stripe was more pronounced, and her red hair lost its vibrancy. Instead of covering the silvery strands, the Grammy winner opted to dye all of her hair except the natural streak of gray, thus creating the signature silver-white swoop that continues to set her apart today. If you go this route, invest in a good, anti-fade shampoo and conditioner for colored hair, such as TRESemmé Keratin Smooth Color Shampoo and Conditioner ($5 each).
Embracing All-Over Gray
In 2020, after coloring her hair every four weeks for 30 years, Juliana Blanc, an executive administrator at a Florida law firm, said enough is enough. “I was tired of feeling like a prisoner of the process,” says the 59-year-old, who spent two long years transitioning from a rich brown to a vibrant, silvery gray.
“I feel sassy and sexier, not older, since going gray,” says Blanc. “It’s been liberating to not have to plan my life around my hair appointments.” Best of all, Blanc now funnels the $300 a month she’s saving on salon visits into a travel fund.
That’s not to say Blanc no longer spends money on her hair. To keep her gray, shoulder-length bob healthy and white—Blanc splurged on a “pricey, but life changing” Dyson Airwrap styler ($599), a new-age hair gizmo that dries and styles hair at lower, less damaging temperatures. Blanc also gives high marks to Fanolo No Yellow purple shampoo ($13), which removes discoloration from gray hair, and Color Wow Dream Coat ($28), a remarkably effective anti-frizz treatment that’s applied prior to blow drying to fight humidity, smooth grays and add shine.
Contemplating Your Next Move
For anyone on the fence about whether or not to gray naturally, you’d do well to check out Going Grey Gracefully, a Facebook group with nearly 300,000 members, many of whom share before-and-after photos and product recommendations. You’ll also find many positive-aging accounts on Instagram that chronicle real-life women as they transition to their natural gray color. Three worth following include @gratefulandgray, @hairscapades and @grombre.
Millie content is licensed from Meredith Operations Corporation, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle and more.
Monica Michael Willis is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Modern Farmer.
Inset Photographs: Courtesy Respective Brands