It’s been over four months since I last shared my thoughts and progress with my gray hair transition, so I thought I would give you another update today. As I revealed in my “Best of Full Life Reflections 2018” wrap-up, gray hair transition posts are the most popular on the site, so there is clearly a lot of interest in this topic. If you’re a new reader and want to check out my gray hair-related essays, you can find them all here.
Some Background Information
Those who have been following along for a while may remember that I first started to transition to my natural salt-and-pepper hair back in 2016, shortly before I turned 50. I had grown weary of having to touch up my roots every four weeks and had also become increasingly unhappy with how my color looked. At that time, my hair was very dry and damaged and my color often skewed too warm-toned and wasn’t uniform enough from roots to ends. Gray hair can be stubborn to color and because I’ve always had wiry and porous hair, my hair was even more unpredictable in its reaction to hair dye. So as I neared my milestone birthday, I decided to embrace my natural shade, no matter how gray it might be.
What I didn’t realize when I made that landmark decision was how difficult the process would be for me emotionally. It was easy in the beginning because I could easily hide my gray roots using an effective cover-up powder (which I recommend for extending the time between dye jobs or in the early days of transitioning to gray). Such products are designed to be used for just a few weeks, but I managed to cover up my roots for close to six months! It didn’t look so great towards the end, but I mitigated that effect by wearing headbands, hats, and scarves.
Where Things Went Awry and Why I’m Writing this Post
The six-month point was where my gray hair transition process went awry, and the next year was marked by a series of mistakes that I outlined in a difficult to write post last April (an article that continues to generate comments and emails). Although I shared a great deal in that post, I also left out some details because I wasn’t ready to face them myself. In today’s post, I reveal that information and tell you where I am in the process today. I also highlight some things I’ve learned about myself along the way and offer additional tips for those who are interested in transitioning to their natural gray hair.
When I was no longer able to cover my gray roots with powder, I had to figure out what to do. I feared walking around with a “skunk stripe” because I dreaded the thought of people staring at the top of my head and saying negative things to me. I wanted to “blend in” as I always had, so I took a big risk and did heavy highlights all over my head to try to blur the line of demarcation. I had no idea that those highlights would turn a brassy shade of orange, but that’s what happened. The other mistakes I made were all in an effort to overcome that initial error and resulted in my throwing lots of “good money after bad.” I spent countless dollars, only to continue to hate the way my hair looked while setting back my progress in growing my hair out.
I take responsibility for wasting both money and time, but I sure wish I would have known then what I know now. I also wish that more hairstylists would either know how to best help women to transition or recommend that they not use color on the road to their natural hair. Since the world of gray hair transition still has a long way to go, I’m continuing to share my thoughts and experiences in the hope of saving other women from the difficulties that I endured. I’m writing this post for those women who are in a quandary and grappling for information to help them make the right choice for them.
While the disasters that happened when I tried to use color to transition won’t happen to everyone, I want women to at least be aware of the possibility that such things could occur. When we see glossy images of dyed silver hair on Instagram, Pinterest, and other sites, we don’t realize that such lovely results are not the norm. And even when a woman leaves a salon with gorgeous, glowing silver locks, within a few washes (or sometimes even a single wash), they may be left with a yellow or orange hue. The lucky ones will retain the effect longer, but we never really know in which camp we’ll fall until we give it a go. I had no idea what would happen to me because I had been dyeing my hair dark for many years, which is a whole different ball of wax.
What I Didn’t Share Before…
When I wrote my “don’t do what I did” post last April, I didn’t know how to end it. I knew that readers would want to see what my hair looked like then, but I was too crushed by what had happened to show the full extent of it. I didn’t want to face the truth myself of how much my progress had been set back by my fourth big transition mistake in September 2017. So I shared shots of me trying on a gray messy bun extension, as well as a picture my stepson retouched to depict me with fully transitioned hair to help motivate me to stay the course.
The truth is that I would have been done with my gray hair transition many months ago if I had not made that one big mistake. To this day, I still don’t know what happened, but it’s basically like my hair got colored all over again. Since what was applied to my hair had been called “toner,” I expected it to eventually wash out, but it never did. And since it was applied at the shampoo bowl to virtually all of my hair, I basically had to start transitioning all over again. Only a couple of inches of my natural hair remained on the sides (and almost nothing in back), whereas I should have had at least eight or nine inches of “virgin hair” by that point.
The following pictures were taken in October/November 2017, back when I still thought the color might wash out:
As you can see, there’s not a lot of gray outgrowth there and definitely not enough to represent almost a year and a half!
Changing the Narrative
Despite my washing my hair many times with clarifying shampoo, dandruff shampoo, and even Dawn dishwashing detergent, the color steadfastly remained. Not even color remover was able to get rid of the dye; all it did was turn the test strand bright orange, so I gave up on that idea. As a result of everything that happened, I now have very little trust for hairstylists, but at least I finally stopped using any sort of color on my hair.
I decided to just stick with periodic haircuts until all of the color is cut off. I committed to getting a haircut every two months and to cutting as much as I feel comfortable with each time. Because my hair is naturally wiry and I live in a relatively humid place, I prefer to keep my hair somewhat long so that it doesn’t become extremely unmanageable. The average hair growth for most people is half an inch per month, and I feel that’s in line with the growth I’m seeing on my head. In short, it’s a very slow process, to say the least!
What’s been adding to my misery with this whole thing is the thought that it’s been almost three years since I started my transition. Thinking of that timeline and seeing other women who started after me finish their transitions with hair around my length has compounded my negative feelings.
So I recently decided to change the narrative. Since I basically had to start the process all over again in early September 2017 (as the above pictures show), I’m counting that as my new start date. Thus, I’m now close to the 18-month mark, which looks far more in line with the progress I’m seeing on my head. My hair is mostly grown out now, but I still have at least a few inches to go on the top layer and a little bit underneath as well. It’s hard to tell exactly how much color is left, though, because I don’t have as much gray as I initially thought, there isn’t a stark line of demarcation anymore, and my hair looks different depending on the lighting.
I feel much better now that I have reset my transition starting point to the date when I stopped using all types of color. I have already beat myself up more than enough for the bad decisions I’ve made, so I’m ready to just finish this up and put it behind me. A lot of women have stops and starts on their way to transitioning to gray hair, so I’m not alone in that respect. In fact, many women try to transition a few times before they successfully complete the process. The difference with my situation, however, is that I didn’t intend to color my hair again in September 2017. But since that’s what essentially happened, I’m counting it as a re-start.
What My Hair Looks Like Now
This time, I’m going to see things all the way through – and I’m getting closer! Here are some recent pictures of my hair from late December and yesterday (excuse the bad selfies – blame the fact that I’m not a millennial!):
Each set of photos above was taken on the same day but in different lighting, so you can see the variations in color depending upon where the photo was taken. I actually have more color remaining than it looks like in the second set of photos, but it’s hard to get a really accurate representation… One of the most maddening things about having lighter hair is never knowing for sure how it really looks. But I will live with that and will be thrilled when I’m finally free of color and sporting all natural hair.
What I Learned About Myself in the Process
I will probably do a full post on this in the future, but I’d like to say a few things here today. While I’ve mostly written about the lessons I’ve learned about my hair, I have also learned a great deal about myself along the path of this very long and winding journey. Most of all, I’ve learned that when I try to avoid experiencing any sort of pain or discomfort, I often end up having to deal with a lot more distress in the long run. The best way to overcome adversity is to face it head on. Because I tried to avoid looking bad and dealing with negative feedback as I grew my hair out, I ended up looking worse while also extending my transition time almost two-fold and wasting untold sums of money, time, and energy.
I didn’t want to have to talk about my hair with people and I didn’t want to face anyone’s disapproval or negative comments while I was transitioning. I also didn’t know if I would see things through, so I started growing my hair out without anyone realizing I was doing it. I told very few people about my transition while I was using the root cover-up powder because I could still “pass” for having full-length dark hair at that time. But I had to “face the music” eventually and that’s when I started to panic. This set off the series of events that made things exponentially worse than they would have been had I just told the truth from the outset. All the while, I have received very little negative feedback during this lengthy process, so all of my worrying was really for nothing anyway!
Because I worry far too much about what other people think and fear their disapproval, I didn’t embrace my gray hair transition process as an opportunity for growth, as well as a way to potentially inspire others. I wanted to just “skate” through it, but I didn’t realize the impossibility of that. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch! The gray hair transition process is always going to involve some degree of discomfort, no matter how we approach it. In trying to avoid this discomfort, I made things so much worse for myself later down the line.
I used to be a much more open and courageous person, but now I often hide my feelings and what I’m up to for fear of the judgment and condemnation of others. I often feel lonely, but yet I’m the one who sets myself apart from others. My fear causes me to be secretive and to keep others at arm’s length. I don’t want to do this anymore. Perhaps I had to go through all of this difficulty with my hair to come to realize this about myself. Maybe I had to “amp” up my folly in order to fully comprehend it, but here I am at a crossroads.
As part of my “freedom” theme for this year, I want to embrace my truth and share it with others. Deep down, I know that others aren’t thinking of me as much as I believe they are. Even when they do think of me, they likely don’t harbor the harsh judgments I imagine are in their minds. But even if others do judge and condemn me, I want to be free to be who I am, warts (or brassy hair) and all. I want to be free of the burden of the opinions of others. It has cost me far too much of my freedom and I’m ready to reclaim that for myself now!
Some More Tips and Suggestions
Before I conclude this lengthy post, I want to share a few tips and suggestions for those who are pondering “going gray.” As I’ve said previously (at the end of this post and in this one), I think the best and easiest way to proceed is to stop coloring “cold turkey” and to part with as much length as you can. This is the fastest and least expensive method, but it definitely takes some emotional fortitude.
My metaphorical hat is off to those who go from long dyed hair to short gray hair all in one fell swoop, but such a drastic change can be difficult for many women to handle psychologically. It’s easier on some levels to do gradual cuts as the hair grows out, but you’ll need to contend with the “skunk stripe” that way. Hats, scarves, and headbands can be helpful, and some women also have success with using wigs as a transition tool (see this video for a great – and funny – example!). I considered the wig option myself, but since my transition coincided with menopause and hot flashes, I knew that would have been just too uncomfortable for me to endure.
If you’re thinking of using color to help you transition, here’s what I suggest for you:
- Have a consultation with a stylist who specializes in gray hair transition. There aren’t all that many out there yet, but they do exist (Katie Goes Platinum has a “Gray Friendly Salon Directory” on her blog, so you may find someone near you listed there). If there isn’t such a color specialist in your area, see if you can consult with one remotely who can guide your local stylist on how to best proceed. Also, if you encounter a woman whose gray hair you like, ask how she transitioned. If a stylist helped her to do it, get a referral and go talk to that person. Remember, however, that various hair types will react differently to chemical processes. Make sure to discuss your hair type and its unique challenges with any new stylist.
- If your hair is dark, opt for low-lights over highlights to break up the line of demarcation, but only in the beginning. Low-lights can turn brassy, too, but they’re less likely to turn bright orange or yellow like highlights on dark dyed hair often do. Just do the low-lights in the very beginning of your transition, a few times maximum. As time goes on, your hair will grow out unevenly and the line will become less stark. I’ve seen lots of photos of women at the 8-month point or so where their hair looked quite dramatic and pretty. I wish I would have waited a bit longer myself before pursuing highlights.
- If you’re starting out with any shade of red dyed hair, you might want to consider going to a cooler brown tone first. I think that part of my issue was that my dyed auburn hair really clashed with my cool-toned salt-and-pepper outgrowth, which was upsetting and jarring for me. Since most hair dye will oxidize and become warmer-toned over time anyway, it’s helpful to start out with a cooler-toned color to help mitigate that effect. In hindsight, I would have dyed my hair a dark brown with no red to start the process.
- Do a test section of any color process before having it applied to your entire head of hair. Ideally, this test section should be done in a spot that’s easy to either hide or cut off should things go awry. Wait a few weeks before proceeding with an all-over color process to see what happens to the test section as you wash your hair multiple times and use heat tools. Yes, this will cost more and take longer, but check out my photos on this post again to see the effect you definitely want to avoid.
- Beware of semi-permanent dyes and toners. While such products will eventually wash out of some people’s hair, they often leave stains that will set back or derail your progress. True toners are meant for light hair only, so if you’re not a dyed blonde and “toner” is recommended, stay away. I later learned that when my hair was toned, a bit of dark dye was added to the toner so that it would be effective in toning my darker hair. That small amount of dye (which I think was semi or demi-permanent) is likely what stained my hair, but it always seemed to at least partially wash out before that final time in September 2017, so I’m still not sure what happened there. Just be careful and don’t assume that any color products will wash out completely.
- Consider the costs for the initial process and for maintenance. When hair is dyed silver (remember that it first must be bleached platinum blonde, which can be very damaging and lead to breakage and even hair falling out – see this video as a cautionary tale!), special toners are needed to maintain the icy, cool tone. Depending upon your hair type, these toners may wash out very quickly, sometimes after only one or two washes. Your use of heat styling tools will also affect how long such toners last. Because I have porous hair and frequently use a flat-iron, toner never lasted very long on my hair despite the fact that I only shampoo every 5-7 days. Maintaining cooler-toned hair (not even close to actual silver since my hair wasn’t bleached platinum) was extremely cost-prohibitive in my case, and the lower-cost shampoo bowl application that was used on me for several months stained my hair. In hindsight, I would have rather paid more money for a more precise application process at the stylist’s station!
I recommend that you think long and hard about the above points before you use color to help you transition to gray hair. I can totally understand why you’d be wary of facing months of walking around with a line of demarcation, but I now feel strongly that it’s the lesser evil. I would have been done transitioning long ago had I sat with my discomfort for a few more months until my natural hair looked more intentional and attractive. If you join any of the gray hair transition Facebook groups or follow Instagram accounts with the gray hair theme, you’ll see lots of women in various stages of growing their hair out. It doesn’t look nearly as bad as you fear it will, and many of these women receive far more compliments than criticisms.
In Conclusion – Get Support!
My last recommendation is to get some support on your journey. The Facebook groups and Instagram accounts (there are so many – just search for them and you’ll find lots to choose from!) are great resources, as are the various YouTube videos (and one blog) mentioned towards the end of this post. I never got enough support because I was too embarrassed after my numerous mistakes to reach out to anyone. I felt so alone and ashamed that it made the whole process a lot harder to deal with. In retrospect, I wish I would have shared my story in at least one of the Facebook groups, as it could have helped other people and perhaps I would have gotten valuable support and learned that I wasn’t alone in the mistakes I’ve made. Hindsight is 20/20 in many respects, but at least I’m doing my part to help others now.
For those who are contemplating going gray, I wish you luck, strength, patience, and fortitude. I will be cheering you along all the way! If there’s anything I can do to help support you, please let me know. Feel free to pose any questions you have in the comments section, or you can send me a private message via my Contact page. You’re also welcome to share your own gray hair transition experiences and tips here if you’d like. If other readers have thoughts or insights regarding this post, I invite you to comment below as well.