The Key to Transitioning to Gray Gracefully

·6 min read
Photo credit: Jason LaVeris
Photo credit: Jason LaVeris

From Oprah Magazine

Once upon a time, gray hair was seen as something to be avoided. Now? Gray hair is so chic it's practically a fashion statement. Today, more and more folks are choosing to go gray younger and younger. In some cases, even opting to dye their strands a faux gray shade.

This is not your grandmother's gray hair: The hues we see today aren't coarse and dull. The modern gray is lustrous, full of shine, and begging to be admired. Just look at celebrities rocking the au naturel look—Meryl Streep, Tia Mowry, Christie Brinkley, and even Kelly Ripa, granted that was during a period of the pandemic when she couldn't get to a salon.

If you've been wanting to go gray but aren't sure where to start, there are no limits. No matter what your current shade is, your stylist can absolutely transition you to your natural silver, says celebrity colorist Beth Minardi of Warren Tricomi Salon in NYC. And best of all? They can do so without massive stress to your hair or a totally awkward grow-out stage, she says.

When you're transitioning to gray, patience is a virtue.

Slow and steady wins the proverbial (gorgeous hair) race. “Never try to lighten natural salt-and-pepper hair color more than three levels in a single process,” says Patricia Williams, ROUX Education Ambassador, based in Florida. “And never apply dark colors and then attempt to lighten them to create gray effects.”

Work with your existing highlights.

“I love to transform highlights gracefully, opting out of retouching the base color and placing dimensional foils to gently blend all of the variations that graying hair has to offer,” explains hairstylist George Alderete, creative ambassador for Keune Haircosmetics, USA. “When hair begins to soften in tone, there are stages the hair transforms into during the life cycle as we mature.”

Again, be patient, Alderete advises. “Have an honest conversation with your stylist about how long your transition will take, and ask about dimensional color services to blend into your gray hair gradually. Depending on your natural hair color and skin tone, adding brighter and lighter shades will help you get used to your new commitment.”

And if you have lowlights, soften them.

The best way to transition is to change your lowlights to a softer, lighter tone, says Robert Bennett, a colorist at Maxine Salon in Chicago. Also, pull less hair into the foil, allowing more of the natural gray to shine through. "This technique will lessen the line of demarcation helping with the transition," he explains.

Going from blonde to gray? That's simple.

“Blondes are easy to transition to gray, because you really don't notice the gray hair until it's about 70 percent grown in,” says Brandon Wagner, director of education for Crazy Color and owner of Tribeca ColorSalons in Tampa. “Convert your current gray coverage formula to a sheer toner to get more translucent color on the white hair, and you will look like you got a full head of highlights!”

And if you're brunette...

“If you have dark hair and you're starting to gray, I would not start dyeing it until you are at least 75 percent gray naturally," Wagner advises. "Any lesser amount is salt-and-pepper. But if you have 75 percent gray hair, you can switch to a level 8 acidic color to camouflage the grays as blonde hairs.”

Semi-permanent color can help blend brown and gray hair, but as the name suggests, it won't last.

"A semi-permanent color will stain the gray hair and fade off gradually, leaving a slight demarcation between the gray and colored hair."

Instead, add more highlights, but make sure they are as cool as possible to mimic white hair, says celebrity colorist Matt Rez. "Gray is an illusion, so a good colorist can create that with high and low lights."

These hairstyles that can help hide patches of gray as you transition.

"Often, gray patches are most prominent on your hair line and where you part, so moving your part is an easy way to disguise your patch," says celebrity hairstylist Adam Campbell.

Having your stylist add layers will also help camouflage the grow out period, says Bennett. "Also, wearing your hair natural with volume can help conceal your outgrowth."

And when in doubt, there are always headbands and hair wraps. Oprah is especially fond of these from Wrap Life.

You don't necessarily have to cut your hair.

While the old rule of thumb used to be that women over a certain age should cut their hair short, that so-called rule is actually completely arbitrary. There's absolutely no reason for you to chop off your hair as you're going gray—unless you prefer short hair. The only necessity? You guessed it. Patience.

Going gray takes time. “Depending on the depth you have been coloring your hair to, the transition can be easy or it might take several months, or longer,” explains Wagner, who lightens the formula depth for his clients one-half level each month until the formula is a natural level 8. "This is the lightest you can go and achieve gray coverage," he says. "After you reach that lightness you should be able to let your natural color grow out.”

And remember to use the right products.

Sun, aging, heat...they all contribute to gray hair turning yellow and dull. To keep your strands in tiptop shape, it's important to use shampoos designed for your grays. "These will help the oxidized highlights move to a cooler tone as your natural shade starts to emerge," says Rez. Plus, reach for conditioners and styling products specifically designed for gray hair.

While you can also get a glaze at the salon (or try one yourself at home), to protect your strands, the key is to keep them moisturized, especially if your hair is textured.

Because gray hair is always more coarse, Campbell recommends doing conditioning treatments and using hair masks for extra shine. You can make one of these, or opt for the drugstore version.

And if possible, skip the heat.

Heat can be problematic for gray hair, causing it to yellow, explains Williams. “I tell my clients to avoid heat-styling as much as possible. Also, it's important to avoid chlorine, which can cause grays to discolor." And if you must use heat, TV and film hairstylist Tracey Moss recommends going ceramic: "The ceramic curling and flat iron gives an even distribution of heat, which seals the cuticles and leaves the hair soft and shiny." But, if your hair does start to yellow, an easy fix is a non-damaging toner.

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