Why is it that however many new grey hairs sprout from our hairlines, we never seem to be any the wiser about how to manage them? As a beauty editor I, possibly more than most, can adopt some level of agency over how I age, choosing whether it should be under the watchful eye of Mother Nature or that of the latest doctor on Harley Street. But when it comes to going grey, I will admit a touch of bewilderment. Confronted in my early forties with my first silver streaks – and knowing that by the age of 50, one in two of us will have half a head of grey hair – I find myself wondering how easy it is for anyone to age gracefully…
One friend exhausted with the constant maintenance involved in covering up her roots tells me that she is tempted to go fully grey but can’t quite take the plunge, as her children collapse in tears every time she threatens to down her hair dye. The problem, according to the behavioural psychologist Professor Carolyn Mair, is that "we live in a youth-obsessed society where the norm is to eliminate any sign of ageing". So, she explains, "not taking advantage of the many opportunities to maintain a youthful appearance is considered to mean not taking care of ourselves".
Yet I have always considered looking after my truest self to be the real barometer of beauty, which surely means prioritising self-esteem over anti-ageing. Perhaps if I could find the confidence to go grey on my own terms, I might be able to find a happy space between taking a healthy, moral standpoint on ageing and looking my best. After all, there’s no shortage of role models: some of the world’s most desirable women, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Diane Keaton, Andie MacDowell and Queen Letizia of Spain have chosen to embrace their greying hair. Closer to home, I have my own poster girl Catherine Hayward, the fashion director formerly of Esquire, who elected to sport a fabulous streak of grey since her early thirties while transitioning to full-white.
"I just seemed to go with the flow of what my hair wanted to do, going lighter at the front and dark at the back," Hayward tells me. "It was like Debbie Harry’s style, and just a little bit rock ’n’ roll. While I hated the frizz, I really didn’t mind the whitening. In the past year or so, I’ve noticed others beginning to feel the same – I’m constantly stopped in the street by women asking me how I achieved the look."
The answer, apparently, is through a lot of trial and error. "The challenge with greying hair is its texture. I get through tubs of conditioners and masks that I sleep in, and I’ve had a weekly blow-dry in my local salon for four years now. When I’m travelling for work, I schedule salon appointments around the shows, and a blow-dry is the first thing I have when I arrive in New York."
Indeed, with greying hair comes a total rethink of our bathroom shelf. As hair loses its melanin granules, it can begin to change shape and become deprived of its elastic properties. "It’s a myth that grey hair is more coarse – in fact, it’s finer, though its texture does shift. Simultaneously, production from oil glands on the scalp slows, leading to drier-feeling hair," explains Dr Joseph Cincotta of Federici Brands. Dry locks, being unable to reflect light, can lack shine, so a greater focus on smoothing and glossing treatments is needed. Cincotta also recommends selecting formulas suited to fragile or even coloured hair, as well as shampoos designed to rinse away minerals found in tap water that risk discolouring whitening tresses.
Then comes the question of how to maintain a shifting spectrum of shades – monitoring and blending your salt-and-pepper roots until your full head of hair decides it’s going to go entirely grey (as a blonde, I know all too well that this process can take years). Hayward spent over a decade painstakingly finger-painting her roots, save for her signature streak – a weekly habit she decided to abandon last year, though "not before finding a wonderful stylist called Marley Xavier at Josh Wood who finally understood how to manage the grow-out properly" she tells me. Xavier, a master colourist usually found backstage at Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs, calls it his ‘lip glossing’ for hair, weaving in darker strands at the roots, blurring out the tide mark between your new grey growth and the dye job you want to leave behind.
My own colourist, the wonderful Adam Reed, informs me making the transition to a full grey look is becoming far more achievable, in part because of a cultural shift, but also because the big beauty companies have developed some excellent products to ease the process. "Colour is so incredible now that it needn’t take weeks or months of growing out your hair, dyed or otherwise," he says. "I can enhance your natural shade, and just warm up the grey and blend them in so you don’t see any roots or regrowth. No part of it has to be about covering up greys – I can create a softness to grey hair that looks so feminine."
But no amount of good products or stylists can make the decision for us; in Hayward’s words, "You have to make the leap yourself". Likewise, while I can’t single-handedly persuade the world that a woman with grey hair is just as much a silver fox as her male counterpart, I can choose to show it off myself – and hopefully pass it on with gusto. As Mair says, "Not being young doesn’t mean we’re not youthful."
How to care for grey hair
When embracing grey locks, certain products can keep it looking its best. “Grey hair has no natural pigment so it can become yellow over time,” explains Katie Allan, creative manager at Charles Worthington. “To prevent this from happening, use clarifying products weekly to eradicate any free radicals and impurities.” We like the Living Proof Triple Detox Shampoo.
Also invest in a silver shampoo (such as the L’Oréal Professionnel Série Expert Silver Shampoo), advises Reed, “as this cleans and purifies the hair fibre while neutralising any yellowness, to give clarity, shine and softness”.
Lastly, you’ll have noticed that the lack of pigment in grey hair also affects the texture. “It can also be very dry and wiry,” Allan confirms, so take conditioning seriously with the addition of a weekly hydrating mask. Shop the products we recommend specifically for grey hair, below.
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