At 50, I decided to ditch the dye and go gray. It was 2015, before the “great global pandemic root awakening”, and I was assigned an article on women of various ages who had embraced their gray hair. After the story ran, I was so inspired by the women I interviewed that I decided I was ready to embark on my own gray hair journey. I’d been dyeing my hair varying shades of brown for the last 20 years and had grown tired of the expense and maintenance.
When I brought up the idea of going gray to my friends, they were stunned. Most confessed that they could never do it because their spouses wouldn’t approve. Now, I was the one stunned. What era were we in? These comments sent me straight to my stylist, Candace Dombkowski, to make it happen.
The process of going gray
Because everyone has a different degree of gray hair with their own unique growth pattern, every gray hair transition needs to be customized, and there are two main ways that stylists make that happen. The first, which was developed by celebrity colorist Jack Martin, involves making the shift all at once. The several-hour process that Martin has trademarked extracts the hair of all artificial color, bleaches the strands, and then applies different shades of gray that match the person’s gray pattern.
Dombkowski prefers the second, slower approach. “I prefer to soften the demarcation line and go from there,” she says “I lighten in stages. I also add lowlights so that over time these colors blend with the gray as the hair grows out. Over the course of several months, I add less and less color so that the client can slowly get used to seeing more gray.”
Dombkowski decided that the best way for me to transition my strands to avoid the dreaded demarcation line was to highlight my chestnut hair blonde. The golden streaks she strategically placed throughout my strands created a gleaming honey color that made my complexion glow, and the two-year period between those initial highlights and a full head of gray hair would be the best I’ve ever felt about my hair. As my processed hair grew out, my natural gray roots were blended with more highlights and new lowlights until my hair became a gray-blonde blend with warm brown ends.
Why I decided to go back to blonde
Though going gray has become far more acceptable than it once was, much of the conversation around the transition distorts how difficult the process can be, and not everyone winds up with the seamless, shiny, silver strands they’d hoped for. With that in mind, the reality is that not everyone that chooses to go gray will remain gray—which was exactly the case for me.
“I have had women and men try their natural gray for a while but got to a certain point where they felt it was either aging them or they felt that their hair didn’t have the shine and appeal they had with color,” says Paula Rufo, product development and senior manager at Wella. “Most people who go through the natural gray transition feel liberated from the upkeep of coloring every 4 to 5 weeks and believe that their hair will look and feel healthier, but once they have it fully grown out, they find that they actually miss their monthly visit to the colorist and that their hair actually appeared healthy and shinier with color. Also, having dimension creates the illusion of fuller hair.”
For the past seven years, I’ve witnessed the majority of the silver gray in my hair lighten to white, which I’ve attempted to distort times using various shades of brown lowlights. For my son’s wedding this past spring, I asked Dombkowski to apply a silver semi-permanent glaze in a last-ditch effort to return to my now-gone silver strands. I was happy with the color and how it played off my beaded royal blue mother-of-the-groom dress until the photographer, not realizing who I was, had me sit in between the bride’s two grandmothers.
Longing for the golden look I had years ago, I recently dyed my hair a pearly-champagne color. Dombkowski customized the permanent formula for my white hair with plenty of toner, and because there was no pigment in my strands, she was able to achieve a look that would have otherwise cost hundreds of dollars and required the harsh process of stripping my color with bleach. “Such a light color applied to hair that is mostly white won’t create much root grow-out, and this type of process shouldn’t need more than a quarterly touch-up,” she says.
Going gray is a personal choice, and for so many people, it works. In my case, it was great until it wasn’t, and the most important lesson I learned throughout the process was that it was okay to resist the pressure to stick it out. Going back to dyeing my hair was the right choice for me, and my stylist helped me find a middle ground that makes me feel good. Today, I’m a champagne blonde, but next month? Who knows.