I am one year into letting my natural hair color grow in. It’s been challenging to watch salt and pepper replace dark brown, not so much because I am worried about having gray hair but because growing out a dye job really doesn’t look that great. It’s been so challenging, in fact, that this is my second attempt.
I won’t cave to the call of Lady Clairol at this point, but the first time I tried to let the color grow out, I found myself standing at the bathroom counter the day before my 46th birthday with my hands sheathed in plastic after seeing a holiday photo of myself with four months of natural growth. A shocking flourish of white at the temple sent me running right into the arms of a box of drugstore color. I would not attend my own birthday party in such a pitiful state!
But I haven’t dyed my hair since.
Though the 12-month mark is only a little over halfway for most women who grow out their color — typical transition time is 18 to 22 months, depending on how fast your hair grows and whether you’re willing to cut it really short — it’s far enough into the process that I know I can get to the end.
Last year, I joined several Facebook groups created as support systems for women with gray hair. It’s a little stab in the heart that women with gray hair need support groups, but the struggle is real. Whether you’re transitioning from color to natural gray or simply navigating life as a woman with natural gray hair in youth-driven culture, you can face criticism from friends and family, prejudice in the workplace, and the kind of self-doubt that — if you don’t have people to lean on — can result in a couple of hours in a colorist’s chair.
6 Women Share Their Experiences Going Gray
The GGG Going Gray Guide Facebook group was started by Jan Westfall Rogers, an esthetician and author of the Going Gray Beauty Guide. The group has nearly 15,000 members of all ages. I chatted with five of them about their “going gray” experiences: Amanda Ball (46, pictured above), Debbie Rodney (64), Kay Brooks (67), Gloria Cullins (71), and Sarah White (71).
When did you first start coloring your hair?
I was in my mid-30s.
Debbie: I started highlighting my medium brown hair in my 30s. Eventually, in my 50s, the highlighting just wasn’t doing enough to disguise the gray hair, so I went to all-over brown. But my hair was dye resistant, and the white roots reappeared soon after I left the salon. I went to a high-volume developer to try to get it to stay on my hair. It did stay somewhat better, but it made my hair so dark! Light golden brown dye looked like flat black on my hair. My hair dried out and started thinning. Plus, I had to color it every two weeks to keep the white roots from shining through. I was still saying “I’ll dye till I die.” I couldn’t imagine not dyeing, but I was so weary of chasing those white roots and planning my life around the next dye job. Honestly, I hated it.
Kay: I was 17 years old when I started trying to hide the inch-wide gray streak in the front of my hair. I would flip the part in my hair over to hide that streak, and I don’t think anyone ever noticed it. It never occurred to me to color my hair until much later, when, in my 20s, the streak had grown wider. I decided to color it myself, and to my dismay, the gray turned orange. My new best friend became a beautician who saved me by frosting my hair.
Gloria: I began playing with color on my hair in my late teens — just lemon juice in the sun to lighten it. It didn’t work all that great, but that was the thing to do. As a senior in high school, I was cast in a play as an Indian maiden. I felt like the role called for black hair. I liked it so much I kept it that way for a while. In my mid-20s, I became a hair model. My stylist wanted me to either go platinum or auburn. I opted for auburn, as I had a lot of red in my hair naturally. I kept it red for about eight years until I was living in West Texas. The sun was so intense that my hair started looking brassy. At that time, I started getting the lightest blonde one-step color I could get and putting it on my hair once a month.
Sarah: I was 34 when I first noticed I was going gray. I colored my hair black for 10 years (1985 to 1992 and then another three years). I fully transitioned, then dyed again, then transitioned for good.
Why did you decide enough was enough and that you were going gray?
I’d been coloring my hair brown about four years when I decided to give up the hair dye. I couldn’t keep the color of my hair consistent. I was tired of the smell, chemicals, mess, time, and expense, and I saw one lady in my circle of friends who quit coloring. I was 39 when I quit coloring and fully transitioned at 40.
Debbie: When I was 62, I joined Going Gray Guide FB group. I saw so many beautiful women with all varieties of silver and gray hair. It was truly a lightbulb moment. I decided on the spot that I wasn’t going to dye it again. It was an exhilarating realization! All those trips to the salon; all that wasted money; all the times I dyed my hair myself (getting dye all over my bathroom); all the worrying about whether my roots were showing; dreading having the wind blow, which would expose my roots to the world — in one moment all of that washed away and I felt like a free woman!
Kay: I enjoyed having my hair frosted that one time, but I didn’t like having anything on my hair in general, so after that initial frosting, I let it grow out.
Gloria: Once I got to the point with that lightest blonde one-step color where my roots didn’t show because my hair matched them, I tried putting a golden blonde color on my hair, but it just wouldn’t take. I finally gave up and just stopped coloring. I was fully transitioned to my natural hair color in my late-30s.
Some women get a pixie cut, some just white-knuckle through the awkward stage, some do highlights or lowlights to ease into their natural color. What was the transition technique you used?
I thought I would get my hairdresser to help me transition with both cut and color, but I ended up just not coloring it ever again. I was sick of coloring and wanted to grow it out ASAP, so I opted to just cut it gradually.
Debbie: Since my roots appeared to be very, very light and my dyed hair was very dark, my stylist recommended two options: bleach all my hair pale blond or get heavy highlights. I decided to go with the highlights. I got it heavily highlighted twice, about a month apart. All of the hair was bleached after the second visit. My stylist then applied a soft beige toner and cut it shorter to minimize the damage from the bleaching.
Kay: I remember watching that gray streak reappear as the frosting grew out, and I was so thankful that I still had that white hair and not the orange. I had long hair, but didn’t consider cutting it off during the grow-out process. There were many trims along the way, however. I accepted my destiny of having white hair until — in a weak moment in my 30s — I asked my long-time stylist, Mike, to dye my hair. He didn’t want to because he loved my white hair. After a while, I talked him into it and the appointment was made for a Saturday. The Friday before, I got a call that Mike had unexpectedly passed away. I considered it an omen and again accepted my destiny of having white hair and never looked back.
Gloria: The transition for me was so easy because of the way I did it. I just gradually went through the dark auburn, to a medium auburn, to a pale strawberry blond, to my gorgeous white. It took months, but it was so subtle not many people noticed unless they hadn’t seen me in a while.
Sarah: Once I got past the early skunk-stripe stage, I let it keep growing. I was mostly pepper with salt early on. I’ve gotten more silver as I’ve aged and now do a pixie cut because my hair is so thin.
Between the negative feedback from friends and family and the jarring skunk-stripe stage some women have to deal with, dropping the dye for good can be emotionally difficult. What was the transition like for you?
It was terrifying and lonely. I was really embarrassed. I had no support group or anyone encouraging me. I was afraid of being rejected, especially at work. I kept my long hair pulled back tight and began cutting it in stages, shorter and shorter.
Debbie: I can honestly say that it wasn’t hard on me at all; it was a very positive experience. I laughed about it and felt excited to see the progress I was making. I got encouragement and positive feedback from my family and friends. I was lucky not to get any negative remarks at all. I kept my hair short, cutting it every month during the transition. In seven months, I cut the last of the dyed hair off. I never looked back and never had a moment of doubt that I was doing what was right for me.
Kay: It has been a struggle — a time-consuming and expensive struggle — to have this white hair, especially as I’ve aged. Dealing with curls, waves, frizz, occasional yellowing, thinning, not growing the way it used to, etc. I have drawers and bags full of products that I researched or saw in stores and can’t walk away from because they might be my saving grace (until the next product comes along). For the early part of my 40-plus years of graying — with no Internet and too young to have friends to share information with — I was all alone.
Gloria: I really had no problem. My hair was already nearly white, so I didn’t have a skunk-stripe stage to go through. Once I saw my real color, I embraced it. Those closest to me thought I should continue coloring it, while strangers loved my color. I got so many compliments from friends and strangers, men and women. I loved that part. Some of my family kept telling me I needed to color my hair. I told them I loved it the way it was. I am not sure I would have been successful if I had quit dyeing cold turkey. Being in the design business that may have been quite awkward for me, as how I looked was very important in instilling my clients’ confidence.
Sarah: It was easy once I got past the early skunk-stripe stage. My husband was supportive. Strangers said how brave I was. Others said it would age me. My family didn’t care what I did as long as it made me happy.
How do you feel about your gray hair today?
Since I fully transitioned, I’ve gotten more compliments on my hair than ever in my life. I love my hair now.
Debbie: I think I look so much brighter and healthier with my platinum silver hair. I do believe the light color is more flattering with my skin and eyes. I would not consider going back to the dye for one second.
Kay: My white hair defines me now — the way I dress and the way I wear my makeup. I love it, and I feel confident.
Gloria: I love my hair — color, texture, and length. I was blessed with a great head of hair with natural curl, but not too curly, a gorgeous color, and the kind of texture that will do anything.
Sarah: I love it! I get lots of compliments from strangers wherever I go.
Photos: Guillermo Umbria, Carl Madaffari