What Is the Best Way to Cover Gray Hair?

Updated on March 28, 2018
Jayne Lancer profile image

A beauty consultant and former hairdresser by profession, Jayne has been advising on cosmetics and skin and hair care for almost 20 years.

Simply dyeing your hair back to its original color isn’t the only way to cover gray, and it’s not always the best, especially not if you want natural-looking results.

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How well you hide your gray depends on the technique and color you choose. But before you can decide, you have to consider your natural coloring—not necessarily as it was, but as it is.

If You Are Naturally Dark

Does Your Original Color Still Suit You?

It’s not only your hair that loses pigment when you turn gray, but your skin, too. If you are naturally very dark, dyeing your hair back to its original color can create a harsh and unattractive contrast against your skin.

Mid-browns, on the other hand, don’t look strikingly different to dark browns, but have a much softer, more natural effect. Best are less saturated shades; you'll find that a cool, medium ash brown, for example, enhances the clarity of a pale complexion.

Lowlights

If your hair was black and is now salt and pepper, experiment with black lowlights. They make the gray tones seem like ash streaks, giving the overall impression that you’ve had highlights rather than lowlights.

Highlights

The idea is that the gray will blend in with the highlights, but it never works. Highlights do little more than accentuate the gray if you’re a brunette.

Cool ash tones neutralize the yellow in gray hair.
Cool ash tones neutralize the yellow in gray hair. | Source

If You Are a Natural Blonde

If you’re a natural blonde, years can pass before you notice your hair is turning gray, especially if you’ve always had highlights. It’s because white and gray blend so well with blonde. Nevertheless, a time will come when your hairline starts to look strangely mousy and your highlights seem more yellow than blonde.

To return your hair to a more attractive, natural-looking color, you need highlights and lowlights of pearl, beige and medium blonde. You may want to adjust these nuances depending on the type of blonde you are, but only cool, ash tones can neutralize yellowness.

If your hair is completely white, you can tone it to practically any shade of blonde you like.

If You Are Red

The market is swamped with fashion inspired red tones—everything from light copper and ruby to deep burgundy—but natural shades of red are almost impossible to imitate. It’s best to forget red if your hair is more than 20 percent gray. Warm browns and blondes are a better choice if you want a natural-looking hair color.

If your hair is less than 20 percent gray, a temporary coloring product that washes out after a couple of shampoos works perfectly. Just choose a shade as close to your own as possible to turn your white streaks into vibrant but natural-looking highlights.

The market is swamped with fashion inspired red tones - everything from light copper and ruby to deep burgundy.
The market is swamped with fashion inspired red tones - everything from light copper and ruby to deep burgundy. | Source

Color Treating Your Hair at Home

Home Hair Coloring Kits

Coloring kits available at drugstores work every bit as well as salon formulas. They are translucent enough to offer natural-looking results and, provided you follow the enclosed instructions, are safe and easy to use.

If you don't want your hair to look dyed, avoid highly saturated nuances with fancy names. Instead, choose plain colors that complement your natural coloring, as described above. Should you have difficulty deciding between two hair colors, it's best to choose the lightest. In case it turns out a little too light, you can easily change to the darker color next time—changing from dark to light is more difficult.

If your hair is over ten or 20 percent gray, purchase a product labeled "permanent"—a temporary or semi-permanent product won’t provide the necessary cover and may start to look faded or "muddy" after just a couple of washes.

Following a first full head application, you'll only need to touch up the roots once every four to six weeks.

To keep color looking fresh between treatments, apply a deep conditioner once a week, and always use products designed for colored hair—among other things, these provide UV protection, which prevents fading.

How to Pre-Treat Gray Hair Before Coloring

If you find that permanent coloring products tend to fade quickly or barely take at all, your hair is probably very coarse, as gray hair often is. You can solve this problem by pre-treating with 20 volume developer lotion.

It’s very simple to do: just apply to dry, unwashed hair; leave for ten minutes; rinse and towel dry. This lifts the scales of the cuticle which makes hair porous and less resistant to colorants. You can buy developer lotion at a beauty supplier.

Pre-treat coarse gray hair with 20 volume developer lotion.
Pre-treat coarse gray hair with 20 volume developer lotion. | Source

Progressive Colorants

If you don’t want to treat your hair with hydrogen peroxide and ammonia based dyes, a product like Grecian offers a gentle alternative. As a progressive colorant, Grecian darkens hair gradually. It’s available in shades from light brown to black, and gives natural-looking results. But use with extra caution if you’re in the United States: it contains lead acetate, a cancer causing substance. This ingredient is hazardous enough to have been banned in Europe.

Vegetable Dyes

Vegetable dyes like henna seem like a healthy option, but they’re mostly unsuitable to cover gray, unless you want your hair to turn bright orange or worse. If you make a mistake with a vegetable dye—and results are always unpredictable—it can't be dyed over with an oxidative product, and takes at least eight weeks for the color to fade out.

Highlights and Lowlights

Never try to set highlights and lowlights at home—only a hairdresser can do this successfully.

Only hairdressers can set highlights and lowlights successfully.
Only hairdressers can set highlights and lowlights successfully. | Source

Letting Nature Take Its Course

Letting nature take its course isn't the easy way out. If you want to look good, it takes as much maintenance as coloring to keep white hair looking white.

The nasty yellow tinge you often see in gray and white hair is caused by UV exposure. The only way to get rid of it is with a monthly silver rinse plus regular shampooing and conditioning with products designed specifically for silver hair.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Jayne Lancer

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        susan 3 months ago

        I've had good results with henna. It does work on grey hair and looks very shiny and natural. Ive been using it for a year now and it has allowed me to grow my bob-length hair to below shoulders without a trim. Before I was switching between commercial dyes and occasionally henna but after my husband challenged me to a bet- to not cut my hair for one year, I thought the best way to win the bet is to use henna. I have to state that I use an East Indian store bought henna which is a mix of Indian herbs like amla & methi with pure henna. I find this product does a better job than health food store bought henna.

      • Jayne Lancer profile image
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        Jayne Lancer 3 years ago from West London, UK

        Hi Fantasy Novels UK! Coarse or very thick hair is often resistant to color, which is why it needs to be softened or pre-treated before dyeing. Fine hair, on the other hand, is more absorbent, and accepts color more readily. It also holds color longer, which means it doesn't fade quickly from one treatment to the next. Because fine hair is so absorbent, it can also turn out a shade darker than desired. So, the question is, what type of dye are you using? Your problem should be the exact opposite.

      • Fantasy Novels UK profile image

        Mary-Jane Melrose 3 years ago from Scotland

        Great tips, Dye tends to come out of my hair quite quick. I have fine, oily hair and have been looking for a solution to it washing out so quickly. I might give the 20 volume developer lotion a go.

      • Vvitta profile image

        Kalai 3 years ago from Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

        Great tips. My favourite is the hair dye that works like a shampoo. I just work it into my hair and wait for a minute and rinse off.

      • Minnetonka Twin profile image

        Linda Rogers 4 years ago from Minnesota

        Thanks for sharing these great tips on covering the gray's. I'm a brunette and have used Brown and Auburn dye's. Great information.

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