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What Is the Best Way to Cover Gray Hair?

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

Ash tones enhance rather than undermine the clarity of a pale complexion.

Ash tones enhance rather than undermine the clarity of a pale complexion.

Best Way to Cover Gray Hair

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.

Less saturated ash tones, on the other hand, appear softer and more natural-looking. Ranging from dark blonde to mid-brown, these enhance rather than undermine the clarity of a pale complexion, and don't appear strikingly dissimilar to darker shades.

Lowlights

If your hair was black and is now salt and pepper, experiment with black lowlights. These make remaining grays 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 with the highlights, but this only works for lighter hair. Highlights do little more than accentuate gray if you’re a brunette.

For natural blondes: cool ash tones neutralize the yellow in gray hair.

For natural blondes: cool ash tones neutralize the yellow in gray hair.

If You Are a Natural Blonde

If you’re a natural blonde, years may 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 begins to look strangely mousy and your highlights appear more yellow than blonde.

To return 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.

Natural shades of red are almost impossible to imitate.

Natural shades of red are almost impossible to imitate.

If You Are Red

The market is saturated with attention-grabbing, fashion-inspired reds from light copper to deep burgundy, none of which appear natural. This is because genuine reds are almost impossible to imitate.

But if your hair is less than 25 percent gray, a temporary or semi-permanent product that washes out after a few shampoos can turn white strands into vibrant but natural-looking reflexes that will fuse perfectly with your own color. For this effect, choose a shade close to your own.

For adequate blending or coverage, hair with more than 25 percent gray needs a permanent or demi-permanent product (see "Product Types" below). According to your natural color depth, choose a nuance of warm blonde or brown. These are subdued enough not to draw attention, while being sufficiently warm to complement your complexion.

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Color Treating Your Hair at Home

Home Hair Coloring Kits

Box 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.

Which Color Should You Choose?

If you don't want your hair to look dyed, avoid highly saturated nuances with copious names. Instead, choose plain colors that complement your complexion, as described above.

Should you have difficulty deciding between two colors, choose the lightest. If it turns out a little too light, you can easily change to a darker tone next time, but changing from dark to light is more difficult.

Bear in mind, too, that going a shade lighter generally appears more natural.

Levels of Permanence

Because the following terms often lead to confusion, I've inserted a table in order that you can be certain to purchase the right product or, if visiting a salon, that you and your colorist are referring to the same thing.

Semi-permanent colorants contain no developer and therefore wash out quickly, lasting for between three and 12 shampoos. Rather than depositing color, these merely coat the hair. Use to blend first grays or enhance your natural color.

Semi-permanent products are sometimes labeled "temporary". Check that the box contains only one component and requires no mixing; see the below table.

Demi-permanent colorants are mixed with developer, which means they deposit color and last longer—up to 30 washes.

They cannot lighten, but can darken hair and blend as much as 40 percent gray, depending on hair texture; the coarser the hair, the more color resistent it may be.

Confusingly, these are sometimes labeled semi-permanent. You can tell if you have the right product, since the package will contain two components that need mixing; see the below table.

Permanent or oxidative colorants containing ammoniac can lighten and darken hair, as well as covering gray completely. These grow out rather than fading gradually, leaving a demarcation line or so-called roots.

Stated clearly on the box should be an indication that the product is intended for gray coverage, which requires a developer strength of 20 volume (6% peroxide). A solution of 10 volume (3% peroxide) won't be adequate to penetrate the hair shaft nor to lift darker (peppery) areas for even results.

Product Permanence Levels

Depending on where you are, a number may be designated on the product box indicating the level of permanence.

DenotationPermanence LevelDurationGray CoverageComponents contained in the package

Semi-Permanent or Temporary

1

3 to 12 washes

First grays or less than 25 percent

1

Demi- or Semi-Permanent

2

Up to 30 washes

Between 25 and 40 percent

2

Permanent

3

The color must grow out

100 percent

2

How to Tell If You Need a Permanent Product

If you have a higher percentage of gray (above 25 to 40 percent depending on hair texture), you'll need a permanent dye. You can tell if you've reached this stage, since demi-permanent products will no longer provide the necessary cover and may start to look faded or "muddy" after just a couple of washes.

Maintaining Dyed Hair

Following a first full head application, you'll need to touch up the roots once every four to six weeks. To revive your overall color, comb through to the ends five or ten minutes before rinsing.

Between treatments, cover regrowth with root concealer (sometimes referred to as "hair makeup"), which will last until your next shampoo. These are available in several adaptable shades formulated to blend with most hair colors. They come as powders applied with a brush, liquids applied with a wand, and as sticks and sprays. The latter also adds volume if your hair is thin or fine.

To keep color looking fresh until your next treatment, apply a hair mask once a week and a leave-in conditioner daily. Use haircare products designed for colored hair; apart from hydrating, these provide UV protection which prevents fading.

If your color does fade, try a color-boosting shampoo and conditioner. The section below, "How to Pre-Treat or Pre-Soften Gray Hair Before Coloring" may also be useful.

How to Pre-Treat or Pre-Soften 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 by pre-treating or softening with 10 or 20 volume developer lotion.

It’s very easy to do: simply apply to the gray and white areas of dry, unwashed hair, then blow dry. The heat combined with the acidity of the hydrogen peroxide lifts the scales of the cuticle, making the hair porous and less resistant to colorants.

You can buy developer lotion at a beauty supplier.

Alternatives to "Chemical" Colorants

Progressive Colorants

If you don’t want to treat your hair with hydrogen peroxide and ammoniac-based dyes, a product like Grecian offers a gentle alternative. As a progressive colorant, Grecian darkens hair gradually through exposure to oxygen, allowing control over the amount of gray covered. It’s available in shades from light brown to black, and gives true-to-life results. But use with extra caution if you’re in the United States: it contains lead acetate, a cancer-causing substance hazardous enough to have been banned in Europe.

Gray Reducing Shampoo

A good alternative to progressive colorants are gray reducing shampoos. Like Grecian, these also react with oxygen, giving gradual, natural-looking results for all shades from light to dark. And, as with Grecian, you can control how much gray is covered, which is ideal if you'd prefer a less conspicuous transition from gray to dark.

The most popular product is Control GX by Just for Men. Because its scent isn't overpoweringly masculine, it can be used by both sexes.

Vegetable Dyes

Henna and other vegetable dyes may seem like a healthy option, but are not advisable for covering 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 completely.

If you nevertheless decide on such a dye, don't forget to do a strand test beforehand.

Keeping white hair looking white.

Keeping white hair looking white.

Letting Nature Take Its Course

Embracing your gray and letting nature take its course isn't the easy way out. Maintaining an icy white or the silver fox look takes as much time and effort as coloring.

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 to neutralize yellow.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Jayne Lancer

Comments

susan on January 02, 2018:

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.

Elaine Williams on October 05, 2017:

I have been coloring my hair since I was about 16. I am now 62 and the gray hair is no longer blending in with the blonde coloring I have used most of my life. I am going to give the 20 volume peroxide lotion trick a go of it and see what happens. Can't hurt.

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on September 18, 2014:

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.

Mary-Jane Melrose from Scotland on September 18, 2014:

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.

Kalaichelvi Panchalingam from PETALING JAYA on June 03, 2014:

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.

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on February 23, 2014:

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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