Reader Request: Going Gray


Reader Lina emailed me this question:

I’ve been noticing single, strong, thick gray hairs on my head and would be curious to hear your thoughts on what to do. I am 29, and almost all of my female relatives are firmly entrenched in the “dye every gray hair you can find” way of life. Even my younger sister dyes her hair, to the point where I’m not sure anymore what her real color is. While I don’t see anything wrong with dying your hair, I’ve so far been too lazy to do it.

I don’t have too many gray hairs yet, but I guess I’m wondering when I will cross that “one too many gray hairs” line and what I should do about it. This might sound silly, but I’m worried I’ll wake up one day and realize I have a whole head of gray hair and I’ll not like it.

I remember one day when an older (male) professor of mine in grad school all of the sudden showed up with a dark brown head of hair when he had been sporting a gray look for the preceding three years that I’d known him. It turned into a much-talked about situation amongst staff and students 😉

Should I proudly go gray? Will I look lazy for going gray (even though technically that’s what mother nature intended for hair to do…) Or is there low maintenance color stuff I can do now or in the near future that will ease the transition?

This is a great question, and very personal so although I’m happy to offer my two cents, the choice is ultimately yours. Obvious, I know, but merits emphasis!

Over the past few years, young women have started dying their hair silver and gray. In fact, if you search Pinterest for “gray hair,” the first dozen or more images that come up will be of women in their 20s with various versions of dyed-gray hair. And although I doubt most of them are doing this in solidarity with older women who have gone gray naturally, it’s certainly an interesting trend. Women are generally expected to do whatever it takes to look as young as possible for as long as possible, so voluntarily adopting a physical trait that’s associated with aging is unexpected. Perhaps over time, the bias against going gray will ease up a bit.

The anecdote about Lina’s professor is a telling one: We don’t mind people going gray OR coloring their hair to mask grays so long as it’s done gradually. Making an overnight change is somehow scandalous, although we cut and color our hair in ways unrelated to grays all the time and no one gets as worked up about those changes. It’s natural for people to talk when someone has been gray and suddenly turns up as a brunet because we’re fascinated by the changes people around us make to their appearances. But what difference does it really make? How long will people talk? Is it the fact that someone who seemed not to “care” before, now “cares” about hair as an indicator of age? If it is, why does this matter to us?

So my opinion is this: If you wake up one morning, realize you’re grayer than you’d like, and take action, anyone who has a problem with that should get a hobby. People change themselves constantly. It’s what we do, it’s how we grow and learn. Let them talk, and then let them get over it. As soon as something else of interest happens, the gossip train will pull out of the station. If you’re looking for some inspiration, the Style Crone grew hers out gradually at age 72 and talked about her journey.

If you’d like to go gray as gradually as possible, take a peek at Imogen’s series on Not Going Grey Gracefully – parts one and two. She opted to lighten her hair gradually from black to auburn until she was a blonde, which is a color that blends better with grays and means you can (in theory) go longer between dyes. Won’t work for everyone, but an alternative to just letting it happen over time.

I don’t think it’s bad or wrong to color your gray hair, and I don’t think it’s bad or wrong to grow out your grays in any way you see fit. Aging is personal, emotional, and highly individual, and gray hair is one of the most obvious markers of the aging process. If, how, and when you decide to share that transformation with the observing world is entirely up to you.

Image courtesy ForestFrolic

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20 Responses to “Reader Request: Going Gray”

  1. Becky Ford

    I wonder about this question myself, all the time — just turned 33, noticed my first gray hairs at 25, mostly don’t care as an everyday thing. Now I’m planning a wedding, and I am panicked about looking old in all the photos sure to be taken that day.

    I will probably still just not do anything — my hair is my hair, a curly mass most days, and I like it as is. And when it turns from some gray in amongst the brown to more gray than not (or to where it looks like it is), I probably will cut it so it’s much shorter than it is right now, so that my whole look is different. They won’t “blend” more, but it will be fresh, all the same.

    I agree with Sally, all in all, that that’s no wrong choice to make — just whatever works for you.

  2. Roselyne

    Dying hair is time-consuming and needs to be re-done frequently, and it ain’t cheap. It’s a commitment.

    Most women I know were happy with the hair that grew on their heads until they started getting people assuming they were late-40s, calling them ‘ma’am’, etc… and that was the breaking point where their self-image didn’t match up with their (percieved) appearance, and, boom, hair dye.

    If you think that’s not a thing that matters to you, you do you. That’s where I’m at – no matter what, I am NOT making the time or money to dye my perfectly acceptable hair. I am lazy, and have other things to do. Like drink wine in front of a fireplace with my husband. Cheaper AND more fun. 😉

  3. The Style Crone

    Thank you for the mention Sally. My hair is now totally silver, and I’m loving it. I love how you wrote about this issue.

  4. Mrs. Smith

    I always thought I’d just “go grey”. And my initial greys were welcome as a young mom. Now that they are concentrated in one area and are SUPER wiry and kinky I think I’ll keep doing rinses for awhile (I can’t do semi or permanent dye). BUT what I do love is that so far, they are a very bright silvery grey. I hope they continue to come in that way! 🙂

  5. Alison Weiss

    I was born with black hair and started going gray at 19. I dyed my hair for almost 25 years until I was having to dye it every 10 days. I felt like a hostage to hair dye. I decided at 51 to stop dying my hair. I’d read blogs about this and knew it would take time. I had a lot of mixed feelings about looking older than I am. It took a year, a LONG year where I got regular haircuts but didn’t do any other drastic move to change the color. At first my hair looked pretty awful, but about midway through growing out, young guys at Trader Joe’s were commenting that “they loved my hair.” It has now grown out completely and is a shimmery and silvery. I’ve grown to love it, and I don’t miss hair dye AT ALL. But, sometimes in pictures, I still don’t recognize myself and am shocked that I’m that “gray haired lady.” Another silver-haired woman said that the key to looking great with gray hair is to always have a great haircut, and I agree 100 percent. I’ve had to accept that I’m going against the popular norm to dye my hair to look younger. Ironically, several friends have told me that I actually look younger with silver hair.

    Dying your hair is a personal choice, but I feel in a way that being my natural color has helped me be more accepting of my age and to work harder at being as healthy as possible.

  6. Monica H

    Depending on your base hair color, adding light blonde highlights can be a possible strategy as well. My hair is naturally dark blonde/light brown, and I have light blonde highlights. The highlights and graying hair work together to stretch out my salon visits. The gray looks sorta like blonde and softens the transition between my highlights and newly grown in hair. It’s not easy to tell where one ends and the other begins, so I can go about 8-10 weeks between getting my highlights done. 🙂 It’s still not cheap and it is time-consuming, but at least I don’t worry that I’ll look weird if I let it go for a while like this. This probably wouldn’t work too well on darker hair, though.

  7. Mercy Morris

    I have been going grey for the last 15 years or so and did actually grow out my medium brown dye about 3 years ago.It was ok, but I hate the remainder of my natural colour (which is why I have always dyed my hair,it is a very flat light brown colour) and I saw my mother every time I looked in the mirror. I also found it really hard going from visible to invisible in society – mostly men and younger women couldn’t ‘see’ me. So I dyed it again. I am now (at nearly 50) thinking of having another go, but I’m still not sure. I am going blonde though, just like the link, I couldn’t keep up with the dyeing schedule. I know if I was brave I would just suck it up and be my age, but it is hard to accept invisibility.

    • Wendy Leonardo

      My hair (at 55) is mostly a light, mouse-y brown with a bit of gray, but was blonde in my younger years. I’ve been doing highlights and sometimes lowlights for about six years and find it makes a big difference in my self-image, though it is expensive. I completely understand and have experienced that invisibility of which you speak! The one thing I would suggest is bold/contemporary (in either design or color) eyeglasses, maybe even if you don’t need prescription lenses.

  8. Kate

    I have dark brown, almost black, hair. My first greys showed up when I was 23 (I turn 30 this month). I am not a fan of synthetic dyes — my hair is thin and dry to begin with; dye makes it even thinner and very brittle even with gobs of special conditioners. I’m not self-conscious about grey hair at all; I come from a pretty crunchy progressive family and most of my older relatives have let their hair go grey naturally. Just doesn’t seem like a big deal. That said, I do henna my hair a couple times a year, mostly because it’s an amazing conditioner and volumizer, but the reddish highlights (which show up stronger for me in the summer months) are a nice bonus. FWIW, I still get carded all the time when I buy liquor — I don’t think a handful of white hairs is inherently aging. I don’t worry terribly much about how old I look, but if I did, I would worry about my SKIN first, not my hair. Sun damage is, to my eye, the number one contributor to looking older than one really is. Not to sound prescriptive, but I think a good sunscreen regimen is a waaay better investment than hair dye!

  9. Nebraskim

    I have colored my hair, which is dark brown (I’m 1/2 Asian), off and on for 30 years. My strategy is that i have very intentionally chosen colors that are not found in nature — such as cobalt blue, burgundy, eggplant, scarlet red, etc. I embraced the “fakiness” and just went full on funky. The white hairs took up the color and presented as cobalt or burgundy and the darker hair just took on a different sort of sheen. I worked in a profession (university PR) where it was OK to be an individual and have fun with hair. I stopped doing it about year ago mostly due to cost but occasionally I look at a color at the drugstore and think about doing it again. Funky color is not for everyone, but I love it. I also polish my nails in blue tones. I’m 60, so of course I am not “acting my age.” (sarcasm)

  10. crtfly

    Most of my hair is still dark brown. I have not grey but white silver streak, one each on either side of my face. They almost look like I bleached those 2 areas. They are the same texture and shininess as the rest of my hair. I kinda like them and have decided not to dye over them.


  11. Thursday

    As someone who hasn’t touched hair dye since her mid-teens, noticing permanent greys over the past few years set off some unexpected feelings for me. I could never be bothered with something that required the time, effort and money to keep up, but pondering the possibility of starting to go grey did make me think about it. I think partly, the women in my life had never visibly “gone grey” or talked about the experience, so I felt like I was starting from a really low base. At this point I am just going to see how it comes through and have no plans to start dying it, and that feels rebellious to me, even if sometimes the unknowns still feel confronting.

  12. Victoria Young

    I noticed my first greys at 15 or 16, and din’t pay them any mind. I guess it might have been because my paternal aunt was stark white by 18, and my cousin joined her at 21, so I knew it ran in our family.

    I had a blast dying my hair all sorts of colours for years (purple, blue highlights, pillarbox red), but always felt nostalgic for my silvers. Finally, when I lost my job 18 months ago, the cost of upkeep of “Irish Setter Red” couldn’t be justified, and we “colour-corrected” as best as possible. Nowhere near perfect as it faded, but after my last haircut (took the bottom 4″ off), I only have about 2 1/2″ to go until the fried ends/faded colour is gone and my starry night is free.

    The upside to being 50-50 grey and dark brown at 36? I’m petite, and ALWAYS got carded – no longer!

  13. Emmy

    I live in Asia and I’ve noticed the grey hair trend on younger women and a few men too. I think it works because of the contrast, in the same way that putting grown-up clothes on a young girl can emphasize how young she is. Of course this principle seems to work best on younger people adopting traits of older people; attempts by older people to adopt young traits/clothes/styles produce mixed results.

    Grey hair is also a marker of health. I’m recovering from a serious illness, so for me grey hair is a painful reminder of that. My stylist thus has one simple instruction: always keep it coloured, and as close to my normal colour as possible! I think it’s going to be a long time before I’ll be able to accept grey hair on myself, if ever.

  14. susan

    My hair continues to be a “work in progress” My hair was kept Brown until I retired. Since then nature has provided a lovely streak, then more diffused gray, then white sideburns, etc. etc. I’m with the group who opt for Natural, tho in my dreams I see many exotic options. One thing I do do is apply a Shine product (One’n Only Shiny Silver” from Sally’s is my current fav). Don’t over apply tho! This really makes the white hair look brilliant and the brown hair glow. Yes, the texture and density of my hair has changed but nothing can be done about that — except make it shine.

  15. ImogenLamport

    One day I will go grey – but not until my entire head is silver, right now I still have a whole bunch of darker hairs at the back of my head. It’s entirely up to each person as to what they feel is right for them!

  16. Lisa

    Hi Sally! I finally wrote a post going over how I let my blonde grow out, and how I take care of my long gray hair now. Might be useful for some?