It’s been well over a year since I last gave an update on my gray hair transition process. Although I was on a blogging hiatus for ten months during that time frame, I wasn’t in a hurry to address this topic once I started up this new blog. In truth, I have been dreading writing this post. No, I haven’t gone back to coloring my hair every four weeks like before, but I have made many mistakes along the way. At first, I wasn’t going to write about this at all and I even considered deleting my previous gray hair transition posts. However, I ultimately decided to write this difficult update in the hope that I might potentially save even one woman from going through what I have.
I’m publishing this post on the two-year anniversary of the last time I colored my roots. I should be done or almost done with the transition process by this time (hair grows an average of half an inch per month), but I’m not. The reason I’m not done transitioning stems from my not being in the right headspace to take on this journey in the first place. I wasn’t ready to fully embrace the process because I was afraid of looking bad and receiving strange looks or negative comments from others. Ironically, those fears only served to make things worse for me, as you will soon learn. The type of deep-seated insecurities I wrote about back in 2014 led to a series of missteps that have made the going gray process harder and significantly set back my progress.
In today’s post, I give a recap of the steps I have taken during my lengthy gray hair transition process. I also share some not-so-flattering photos of my hair at various points in the journey. Warning – this is a very long post that I considered breaking into two parts, but I think it works better as a single long essay. If you’re not interested in the topic of gray hair transition, feel free to skip this one, as I will be back next week with a different topic.
Painful to Write About
When my gray hair transition posts were on Recovering Shopaholic, they were among my most viewed articles. After I decided not to delete them, I moved them over to Full Life Reflections because they are a better fit for this new blog’s focus of striving for happiness, peace, and fulfillment in a chaotic world. I know there are many women who are considering growing out their natural hair, so I’m going to share all that I’ve done wrong in order to potentially save them from making similar mistakes. There is no one right way to “go gray,” but I think I’ve taken just about every wrong step a person can take along this path.
Because I’m not done yet and I have many regrets, this is still a very painful thing for me to write about. I think most of the critics and trolls from my last blog haven’t followed me over here, so hopefully I won’t be raked over the coals for my stupidity, but I’m taking the risk because I wish I had read this type of post myself two years ago. I have cried many tears and although I know that it’s ultimately “just hair,” I care a lot (too much…) about what I look like. It’s been hard to go through this process, especially since I have a tendency to be extremely hard on myself and accept too much responsibility when things go wrong. If you opt to comment, please be kind, as I have already flogged myself more times than I can count for the way I have mishandled this.
There is No Easy Way to Transition
I shared the passage below in my last update and while I believed these sentiments back then, I’m even more convinced of their veracity now.
There is no easy and painless way to transition to gray hair. It’s not for the faint of heart and anyone who opts to do it will need to compromise in one way or another. Even women who aren’t particularly vain struggle with letting their natural hair grow out. After all, our hair is like an accessory that we never take off and it either complements or detracts from every single outfit we wear. “Going gray” is a big commitment no matter what and one needs to be in the right frame of mind before starting the process. I wasn’t, although I believed I was at the time. In truth, I never fully committed to this journey until quite recently, believe it or not (more on that in the sections that follow).
My First Big Mistake – Highlights
The last time I did a gray hair transition update was in November 2016, when I had recently gotten a full head of highlights to try to camouflage the line of demarcation, aka the “skunk stripe.” That was my first big mistake. I know that some women have used highlights successfully during their transition process, but I’ve learned that it’s both risky and challenging to highlight dark dyed hair, especially hair that’s as porous as mine. The results are often much better on either natural hair (whether dark or light) or lighter dyed hair.
I started out with dyed dark auburn hair and the highlights left me with brassy, orange-ish hair that clashed with my cool complexion and cool-toned clothing. It wasn’t at all the effect that I desired or was expecting. The line of demarcation was definitely less noticeable, but I soon learned that there are worse hair looks than a “skunk stripe.” Not only did my newly bleached hair clash with both my complexion and clothing, it didn’t harmonize at all with my salt and pepper outgrowth.
The stylist who did the highlights said that the brassiness was there because she couldn’t bleach my hair light enough the first time, for fear of my hair breaking off (which is a real danger, as vividly illustrated in this video). Even though she used a breakthrough product called Olaplex to dramatically reduce damage from bleaching, it was still risky to use as many foils (close to 100!) as she did. She told me that I would need one or two more rounds of highlights in order to eliminate the brassiness.
My Second Big Mistake – More Highlights
I didn’t know what to do at that point. I was already eight months into the process and had spent quite a bit of money on the highlights. I was extremely unhappy with how my hair looked and I wondered if I should just dye it as close to my natural (non-gray) color as possible and start over. In retrospect, that would have been a better way to go, but instead I opted to get a second full head of highlights in December 2016. The end result was lighter, but still a far cry from an ash blonde shade that would complement my outgrowth. Sadly, it still looked very warm-toned, especially after the short-lived toner applied after the highlights washed out. I went back in for more toner, but it never lasted more than one or two shampoos, so I gave up on both toning the highlights and that particular hairstylist.
As time went on, my hair got brassier and brassier. In February 2017, I was referred to a color correction specialist for a consultation about fixing my hair. Sadly, he told me that all of the processing had left my hair too damaged to do what was necessary (more highlights, as well as lowlights) to produce a more pleasing result. My hair just couldn’t handle any more bleaching at that point. Unsure what else to do, I tried to just keep letting it grow out, but I hated the brassy color with a fervent passion.
My Third Big Mistake – “Toning”
By April 2017, I couldn’t stand my “orange hair” any longer, so I visited a stylist who uses organic color to see if there was anything she could do for me. She tested a toner blend on the colored portions of my hair and it did a great job of neutralizing the brassiness. Because it was a darker toner than that used after the highlights, I thought it might have some staying power. I loved the effect, but sadly it only lasted until the next time I washed my hair. The expensive and time-consuming process was washed down the drain and the brass was back. I returned to the stylist and she toned my hair using what she called permanent color, but it didn’t last either and I was left with the warm tones once again.
Not long after these disappointing processes, I was contacted by a former stylist out of the blue on Facebook. I told her about the problems I was experiencing with my brassy highlights and she offered to help me. She tested a few formulas on my hair and found one that worked well and would last for at least a few weeks. In order to save me money, she applied the “toner” at the shampoo bowl and I left the salon with wet hair. I liked the way my hair looked after this process and my plan at the time was to continue doing it until my hair grew out enough to cut off the brassy highlights.
Why Not Just Cut it Short?
You may wonder why I didn’t just cut my hair short to get rid of the orange. It may have been the “lesser evil,” but I didn’t think so at the time. While it isn’t obvious in my photos, I have very difficult and unruly hair. It behaves better with some length and weight to it. It’s not curly enough to look good worn “natural” and I have a lot of frizz, so it works best to wash it infrequently and flat-iron it straight. I shuddered to think about how unmanageable my hair might be during a pixie grow-out process.
Also, having long hair is a big part of my identity and I was already struggling a lot with self-esteem issues related to life transitions and menopause. I thought that adding short, gray hair to the mix might have been too much for me to handle along with aging, body changes, and hormonal weight gain. That may not have actually been true, but that was my thought process at the time. In retrospect, I should have been more willing to compromise and at least cut the brassiest bottom portion of my hair off. But as is often said, hindsight is 20/20.
My Fourth Big Mistake – Lubricity
Now we come to the final mistake I made with my gray hair transition. I mentioned above that I have unruly and frizzy hair. I have tried various chemical straightening treatments over the years and they either didn’t work well or caused an allergic reaction. I was hesitant to try anything like that again, but last summer I heard about Lubricity, a new naturally-derived system that a chemist in Louisiana had developed for his young daughter’s unmanageable hair. I investigated this product further and asked my hairstylist if she thought it might be a good option for me. We agreed to try it in late August at my next toning appointment.
But before I get into this, here are some photos of how my hair looked in July/August 2017, when I was still getting toner every three weeks. You can see that I have a lot of nice outgrowth on the top of my head and underneath. The side view shows how long my roots had grown out, although the color is somewhat obscured by the presence of toner. The ends were still quite brassy, though, and I wish I would have been more willing to cut those off and sacrifice some length. That way, I could have had the toner done less frequently or stopped it altogether.
A lot of things went wrong with the Lubricity process. First, the stylist applied my toner after the Lubricity instead of before it as was recommended. She said she did this to be cautious, but after blow-drying my hair at home, I noticed that it had a light purple tinge to it! The stylist offered to fix it for free a week later (to give my hair some time to “rest” between processes), but it ended up looking worse after that. She got rid of the purple, but my hair was left looking almost completely reddish-brown, with only a few inches of gray roots on the top of my head instead of the eight to nine inches of regrowth I should have had by that time. Like she’d done previously even after I had asked her not to, the stylist applied the toner too high into my outgrowth. I was concerned because it looked like the toner wasn’t completely washing out or fading between my appointments (as you can see in the August side view above). The stylist assured me that it did indeed wash out with the “detox shampoo” she used at the shampoo bowl, but I never saw that effect myself.
The Lubricity did make my hair more smooth and manageable, but I also had an adverse reaction to it with a sore throat and severe congestion. Although those symptoms passed after several days, the “toner” did not fade as I washed my hair over the following weeks. I started to panic and tried using clarifying shampoo, dandruff shampoo, and even dishwashing detergent, but nothing removed that color. I tried to get to the bottom of it, but neither the stylist nor Lubricity accepted responsibility for the result I got (although Lubricity did refund my money). My gray hair transition process was set back by many months and there was nothing I could do about it except cry, which I did many times.
Needless to say, I was very angry at that stylist and am no longer going to her, but the damage was done. I continued to try to get the color out of my hair for months, to no avail. All that happened was that it faded from brown to red to orange to gold. I stopped taking pictures of my gray hair transition process and considered aborting the whole journey over a year and a half into it. But I ultimately didn’t want to go back to coloring, so I had to cut my losses, dry my tears, and carry on. You have no idea how much I wish I could turn back the clock and avoid getting Lubricity and the supposed color “fix.” I deeply regret doing those processes, as well as both rounds of highlights and the toners that either didn’t last long or were supposed to wash out but didn’t. I also regret trusting multiple hairstylists who I thought were helping me but often ended up making things worse (even though that wasn’t their intent). And finally, I regret trying to use color to aid in my journey to stop coloring. I should have known that was a bad idea from the start.
At the Two Year Mark…
So here I am today at the two year mark, roughly eight months after the Lubricity fiasco, and I’m carrying on with my journey. If I pull back the top section of my hair, it looks pretty good, as the staining was mostly confined to that layer (probably because that’s the most porous part). I have had three haircuts in the past eight months and have gotten a lot of the brassiest parts cut off. My hair is shorter than I’d like it to be at present, but I’m finally willing to make some compromises I wasn’t willing for earlier on.
If I put my hair in a ponytail, it looks very “salt and peppery” now. Last month, I went to a kiosk at the mall to try to buy extensions that match my hair to help ease the process. They tried a few variations on me, but I didn’t think they matched my outgrowth well enough to buy them. I’m actually not as gray as I thought I was when I first started growing my hair out. I did ask them to take photos, though, so I’m including those below (I’m not sure I’d want to wear that puffy of a “messy bun” anyway…).
When my hair is down, it doesn’t look all that different from the photos above from last July/August, but the ends are now more gold than red/orange. Of course, my hair should look a lot different than it did eight months ago, so I have to make up for quite a bit of time. I’m upset and demoralized about this, but what can I do? Eventually I will be done transitioning, but it’s going to take much longer than I thought.
The Goal in Mind
At Christmas time, I asked my stepson to Photoshop a picture of me to show what I’ll look like when this long, arduous process is finally over with. This photo isn’t a perfect rendition, but it has been helpful, as it allows me to visualize the end goal and keep my eye on the prize.
I think I will look great when it’s done – and I can’t wait! At this point, I’m planning to keep doing small cuts until the end of the year, when hopefully I’ll be able to cut off the remaining colored ends and start growing my hair long enough to have a gray braid that cascades over my shoulder (kind of like this). It may take me until late 2019 to accomplish that goal, but it will happen!
The Bottom Line – What I Would Do Differently
I would do many things differently if I had this to do over again. If I were to offer any advice, I would recommend the following:
- Don’t do highlights, especially if you have dark dyed hair or highly porous hair (here’s how to tell if your hair is porous).
- Low-lights to help break up the line of demarcation early in the process might be helpful, but just do this once or twice and then stop using color altogether.
- Cut off as much as you’re comfortable with as soon as possible. If you struggle with losing length, just do small trims every couple of months as your hair grows out – those little bits add up over time!
- If you like short hair or are willing to experiment, this is probably the best way to make the transition, as you will be done much sooner. I have read about some people who ended up loving the short hair look and kept it for a while.
Many women try more than once to grow out their natural hair and that’s okay. Sometimes we think we’re ready and we’re really not. If you want to keep coloring your hair until the day you die and you have no adverse effects from it, then more power to you. This is an individual choice that each of us has to make for ourselves. I’m still glad I decided to do it, even though I’ve done so many things wrong. I’m still proud of myself for taking this step and I think my health has benefited from not putting harsh chemicals on my scalp every four weeks. My nerve pain has dramatically improved and because I’m chemically sensitive, I think not coloring my hair anymore is the best choice for me. Yes, I have continued to use color during this process, but I haven’t put it on my scalp for two years now, which is at least one thing I’ve done right.
I’m going to try not to beat myself up for this anymore and I’m going to try to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made as well. I know I also need to forgive the hairstylists who I still harbor anger and resentment towards. Actually, my next post will be on the topic of forgiveness, so stay tuned. Hopefully, it won’t be quite as long as this essay!