mbg Beauty Director
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she’s held beauty roles at Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.
Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy
September 26, 2022
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Welcome to the Beauty Breakdown, our series that dives into today’s buzziest beauty topics. In each, we focus on a different theme and highlight all the need-to-know basics, common mistakes, and the best products to get your hands on.
Silver, gray, white, platinum, salt-and-pepper. No matter how you describe your incoming gray strands, gray hair is a near universal experience shared by many of us at some point in time. And how you choose to wear your gray—whether by coloring it, embracing it, or somewhere in between—is entirely up to you.
However, as hair loses pigment, the fiber does experience some changes. This means that you may need to make some adjustments to your hair care routine, no matter what. As someone who is just beginning their graying journey (which I chose to cover up with blonde highlights at this point in my life), I certainly can see differences in the texture of these budding new strands.
So I tapped hair care experts, and some research, on how best to care for silvering hair. Here, a complete guide to caring for gray hair.
The 101 on gray hair.
No matter if your grays start in your 20s or not till your 80s. No matter if your onset of silver is triggered by stressful situations in life or good ole fashion genetics. No matter if your whole head turns platinum or just a bit of salt-and-pepper around the temples and hairline. No matter how you experience silvering hair, the mechanisms behind graying hair are all the same: Gray hair is simply the lack of color in a strand.
There are cells present in your skin (scalp included) called melanocytes that produce pigment, which colors your hair and skin. Due to genetics, age, health considerations, and external influences these melanocytes decrease in number. This decline is similar to how other elements in our skin decline, like collagen, elastin, and so on. With this change, hair is no longer as pigmented so it begins to appear more gray or white.
This may start in select areas on the scalp (temples for example), and then expand with time. When exactly this process starts is dependent on the individual—not to mention many things can influence how your hair grays, so it can be hard to predict when it will or how quickly.
7 things we’re getting wrong right now.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about gray hair—let’s address them.
- Don’t pluck your grays, but not for the reasons you may think. “This is a total myth!” celebrity colorist and Redken brand ambassador Matt Rez. “More will not grow in its place.” However, when you pluck the gray hair, that single strand will inevitably grow back—and when it does it will be shorter (and therefore more visible) than the strands around it.
- You’re not color correcting. Those with gray hair, especially those who had previously had dark hair, may not be aware of how quickly light hair can turn brassy or yellow. Color correcting through the use of purple shampoos can help tweak your tone back to bright silver.
- You’re not paying attention to the things that can stain your hair. On the same note, lighter, porous hair (which gray hair is) holds on to things from the environment and will therefore stain. For example, excessive hot tool use can burn your hair; amber-tinted leave-ins can stain the strands, and even things like pollution or smoke can dull it as well.
- If you choose to dye the gray, you’re not utilizing dimension. If you decide dying the hair is your route, you may consider opting for a look that utilizes highlights and lowlights (even very subtle ones). By adding some dimension into the look, you’ll have more luck blending in gray roots between appointments—and you’ll have a much easier time growing in the gray should you ever decide to transition.
- You’re using the same care products you always have. As the strand loses pigment, the texture will often change with it, becoming more coarse and dry. During this time you may consider looking for hydrating or smoothing hair care products.
- Yes, stress can trigger graying. It’s not just a myth. There’s a reason fiction often uses graying hair as a visual signifier of having gone through stressful situations: It’s because, as a Harvard study found, when we are stressed our body enters fight-or-flight mode. And when the body is in this state, it diverts resources to more vital areas; then the scalp loses its reserve of stem cells that would then be turned into pigment-producing cells.
- Please don’t worry: Gray hair is a sign of aging faster. So while premature graying can be triggered by health conditions, stress, or nutritional considerations, it’s not a clear indicator that you are necessarily aging faster. An older study that looked at a randomized group of over 20K individuals found that there was no correlation between the onset of gray hair and mortality.
The 3 steps you need to know.
Let’s establish the basics of graying hair.
Come up with a game plan with a professional.
Whether you decide to cover your whole head with color or embrace the silver coming in, lean on your stylist’s or colorist’s expertise. “To avoid jeopardizing the health of the hair, you need a long-term plan,” says celebrity colorist Abby Haliti. “This may take a few salon visits, but it is so worth it when you have the results you desired in the end and didn’t risk the health of your hair.” A hair pro will help you evaluate your (many!) options, teach you about your gray hair’s nuance, give you product recommendations, and more.
Because ultimately, there are several routes you can take when you start to go silver. For example, if your white strands are sporadic, you may consider blending them in with highlights (it’s often called “silver blending.”) Or if you’ve been dyeing your entire head, but now want to embrace the natural color, they can help make the process smoother—to avoid a blunt line. And if you only have a few gaps at target spots, they’ll help you find your perfect color match and “spot treat” with dye—so you don’t have to commit to a full process if you don’t want to.
In addition to advice about the color itself, they can help you find a new cut to complement your texture and platinum locks. While changing your style isn’t necessarily, it can help give your gray strands a fresher appearance.
Update your hair care arsenal.
When hair starts to go gray, the texture changes. Silver strands often feel coarser, drier, and more wiry. In addition, they can also be more porous and prone to frizz. So this may mean a change to your standard go-to hair care products.
A few things to consider, if you haven’t already:
- Switch to sulfate-free shampoos, as they are less stripping of the scalp’s natural oils.
- Switch to hydrating conditioners (rather than volumizing, which tend to be lighter). Or if you’re in real need of moisture, use hair masks in place of conditioners.
- Opt for smoothing hair serums and finishing oils to reduce frizz throughout the day.
- If you are experiencing graying and thinning at the same time (both are common with age), opt for a hair growth serum to help boost volume.
- You can also consider adding rosemary oil, says hairstylist Christin Brown says: “”Rosemary is an incredible gray and silvering ally. There have been some studies done where rosemary has shown the slowing down process of graying in the hair, which is pretty fascinating.”
Address oxidative stress.
Growing research shows the very strong connection between oxidative stress triggered by free radicals and premature graying. Much like oxidative stress depletes things in our skin like collagen and elastin, it is also thought to deplete pigment-producing cells.
As a small dossier: Oxidative stress is what happens when the body’s free radical levels outnumber the antioxidant levels for a prolonged period. This imbalance wreaks havoc on the body, hair included. Oxidative stress can be triggered by inflammation-causing diets, psychological stress, and external factors (like pollution).
You can reduce or manage your oxidative stress with lifestyle changes (you know, like stress management) and through antioxidants (both topical and oral). Look for hair care products that are loaded with antioxidant-rich botanicals, and opt for hair enhancing vitamins.
These certainly won’t reverse graying, but with regular use they can help your hair and scalp be its healthiest.
3 extra-steps to try.
While these aren’t essential tools in the arsenal, they will make a huge difference if you commit to them—especially if you are experiencing texture changes along with your graying.
- Switch to satin or silk accessories. Since the hair fiber texture changes, you may find you’re dealing with frizz more frequently—especially so when you wake up. “Sleep with a silk or satin pillowcase, headscarf, or cap, which allows hair to slide as you toss and turn while sleeping. Silk and satin prevent friction (which leads to hair pulling, tugging, stretching, breaking, and tangling), and these smooth fabrics help retain the hair’s natural oils,” says hairstylist Miko Branch, co-founder of hair care brand Miss Jessie’s Original.
- Get a deep conditioning hair treatment regularly. If you have found that your hair fiber is more breakage prone and dry, it’s time to invest in a good deep conditioning treatment. These are dense, hydrating masks that feed your hair and scalp proteins, hydration, and antioxidants, which can nurture your hair as it ages.
- Use a clarifying shampoo. Clarifying shampoos are basically extra strength cleansers that power wash the hair fiber. For those with gray hair, this can be useful on occasion as gray hair is porous and holds onto particulate matter. If you find that your hair experiences buildup on the strands or stains easily, you may consider looking for one (check out our favorites here.) Just don’t over do it, as they can be drying.
The 6 products to try.
Gray hair requires extra care. Here are some products to add to your arsenal depending on your needs.
Best hydrating shampoo & conditioner combo:: Olaplex Blonde Enhancer Duo
Olaplex Blonde Enhancer Duo
- While the pair works best together, you can by them separately if you happen to have another shampoo or conditioner you love
- The duo comes with a silk scrunchie
Olaplex is beloved by pros and users alike for its bond-building formulas, which help repair dry, damaged hair. This pair starts with the sulfate-free purple-tinted shampoo that color corrects light hair (it’s marketed towards blondes, but as Brown once told me, it’s the shampoo she recommends for those with gray hair too). Then, following up with the conditioner will hydrate and soften the strands.
Best silver enhancer:: dpHue Gloss + Semi-Permanent Hair Color & Deep Conditioner
dpHue Gloss + Semi-Permanent Hair Color & Deep Conditioner
- We recommend the clear gloss for enhancing full silver hues, but if your grays are more sparse you may consider one of the other 10 shades to help blend together the incoming strands.
Give your silver locks a shot of shine with this at-home gloss. The semi-permanent treatment works to enhance your natural hue, without depositing any color or by using lightening agents. And it’s so simple to use (no mixing or multi-step routine here): Evenly coat clean, damp hair with the formula, let it sit for 5 to 20 minutes, and rinse. After, simply style your hair as normal, and marvel at the megawatt results.
- If you are experiencing shedding and loss alongside graying, this serum pairs nicely with the brand’s hair growth products too
There’s been a lot of movement within the science of delaying gray hair; while it’s still a very new and emerging area of the beauty industry, this topical serum by Vegamour can help ease the appearance of gray hair on new hair growth. It does so with peptides, caffeine, and antioxidants that help neutralize oxidative stress at the root (which research shows can speed up the graying hair).
- The fresh, invigorating scent will adds a delightful flourish to the styling experience
This multitasking serum can be used to lock in moisture on damp hair, as a heat protectant before a blowout, as a finishing product to add shine, or on the ends to ease the appearance of breakage. Not only will the clear formula (made with a plant-derived squalane) not stain silver hair, but it will help smooth frizz and manage coarse textures.
Best at-home color:: Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
- With 36 shades (and a color-matching quiz) you’re sure to find the color for you
If you choose to cover up your incoming gray, the more power to you! I also know how challenging it can be to get into the salon for an appointment (not to mention: pricey.) Luckily, at home hair color has gotten quite sophisticated over the years. Most notably, Madison Reed makes kits that offer salon-worthy payoff using better-for-you ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions. A total at-home color game-changer.
Best root cover-up: Oribe Airbrush Root Touch Up Spray
Oribe Airbrush Root Touch Up Spray
- Comes in 5 shades and is easy to apply
If you’re in between appointments, or just want to touch up grays before a big event, root cover-up products are like concealer for your strands. They come in many different varieties, from sprays (like this one), powders that you brush in, or crayons that you draw on. Just make sure you find one that is close enough to your natural hue, so the product doesn’t stand out.
The beauty breakdown.
No matter how you choose to address graying hair, the changes in hair fiber do require additional and unique care. So be sure to find a professional you trust to help you curate a plan and hair care routine that works for you and your lifestyle. Want more tips on how to hydrate the hair? Well, we have a guide for that.