“Your hair is gorgeous,” some new acquaintance or even stranger will say. “Is it real?!”
I always admit that, no, the color is treated chemically.
“But I think I deserve credit for taste,” I joke, and they laugh politely, without actually giving me any credit. In fact, when people learn I am covering my grays, plenty of them feel comfortable telling me right to my bottle-colored red head. “Women should let themselves age naturally,” they say, implying I should give up my hair routine for the cause.
Maintaining a youthful glow with expensive, expensive skin care is completely normalized. Until a couple of years ago, I’d never even heard of all the retinol, vitamin C serum, hyaluronic acid, and other skin care products everyone has an opinion on. Supposedly, with the right mix, you can give yourself a whole new (re: younger looking) face.
But as someone whose grays started coming in early and, as a result, has spent a lot of energy on covering them, my effort toward quick age-reduction does not garner the same respect.
Since turning 30, all sorts of grays pop out of the top of my head and along my temples when I go without a salon appointment for too long. That wasn’t why I started dying my hair, though; it was just fun.
When I was a teen, I experimented with henna. Then, as a younger adult, I would get free dye jobs as a hair model. The results were mixed, with maybe one or two true disasters. Then I liked being a redhead, so I kept doing it. That’s why it took awhile to even notice the gray was appearing.
Now that I do notice, I prefer to keep them at bay — and can afford to choose my colorist, who, not to brag, makes my hair look good. I want to keep it that way.
I admire the fairly new push to celebrate gray hair — it often looks amazing — but why are aesthetics still the driving reason to finally embrace it?
The real discomfort of dye, I think, is that it isn’t invisible.
In my anecdotal experience, telling a woman to go (naturally) gray isn’t really about ditching unrealistic beauty standards so much as it’s about how society prefers “natural” and “effortless” beauty.
Hair dye can’t be hidden in the way religiously applying translucent sunscreen or running an extra mile “to fight a slowing metabolism” can be hidden or explained away. The process is the product, and using it is an outward admission of how aesthetics is still an important part of our daily lives.
When I get pushback on admitting to covering my grays, it feels like the person talking wants to dictate my aesthetic choices and ignore the many other ways in which women can feel forced to capitulate to the pressures of ageism. People would prefer a woman hide she’s trying at all.
Is it so they don’t have to acknowledge the lengths we go to beat signs of aging, or acknowledge why “looking young” still feels so necessary?
Letting yourself age “naturally” in every respect would result in a very different look than what is popularized in the media, even media targeted at ladies over the age of 35. While these standards are changing slowly, we’re not nearly there yet. I won’t judge anyone’s choices about how they choose to present themselves in a deeply biased world.
This is how an experienced hair phony embraces not embracing her grays.
1. Think about what color you want your not-gray hair to be
If you have darker hair, graying roots will be more noticeable. As will going super light overnight. Maybe you don’t care if people notice a change, but my colorist has been gradually lightening my roots when she touches them up, so it blends more with the roots as they come in. She started working in balayage highlights, too, connecting my silver streaks to blonder bits.
2. Be aware of the costs
I visit my stylist every 5 to 7 weeks and it costs me about $100 plus tip each time. While I think her prices are very reasonable for her skill, the cost adds up. Especially when highlights are involved: that can be another $60 to $100, depending on if it’s a full or half head.
3. Get ready to maintain
While money often gets brought up when I talk about my hair color, I can significantly reduce the cost with some at-home maintenance. A great way to maintain vibrant color longer, and cover gray, is to use a color-depositing conditioner.
Many color brands have their own version. Stylists often sell these conditioners to pair with the chemical brand they use in the salon or can help you choose one.
4. If you want to be more targeted, touch up sticks are a great option
Cover Your Gray Touch Up Stick, which looks like a lipstick tube, is less than five dollars. They also have a version with a mascara-like brush applicator. Throw either in your purse and have a fun night out.
There are tinted dry shampoos, like Batiste, which are multipurpose. These little cover ups can go a long way if you’re not ready to go full coverage or want to wait longer between appointments.
5. The cheapest way is to buy box color at your local drugstore
I haven’t dyed my own hair in a long time, but I used to do it constantly. This was before the age of YouTube. There are now hundreds if not thousands of tutorials on dyeing your hair at home, in any shade or style.
There are even videos on how to do highlights, though I wouldn’t recommend starting there. Once you find the right method for you, it will be easy to rinse and repeat.
Beyond the price and process being a general enemy, one of the concerns is hair dye’s possible link to cancer. It’s wise to be wary of what you put in contact with your skin, but those fears should be contextualized.
The American Cancer Society has written extensively on the topic of hair dye. The primary danger is in dyes made before 1980. After that, there was a big shift in the chemicals and studies of modern dyes have been inconclusive — or primarily done with participants who are already at a high-risk for cancer.
People getting their hair colored every few weeks don’t seem to have any noticeable difference in cancer rates. However, hairdressers or people who come in contact with the dye regularly through work have a “small but consistent” increase of risk for bladder cancer.
That’s not nothing, but in reality, many of the objects we interact with on a daily basis carry some small but consistent risk of a rise in cancer, including age itself. Yep, the older you live, the more likely you are to have cancer! It’s just math. As the ACC points out, the best way to avoid cancer is to not smoke, eat a balanced diet, and get regular exercise.
On the scale of possible risks, coloring is personally worthwhile to me. And I do think that if you wouldn’t nag someone about any of the other carcinogens they come in contact with, you should let them enjoy their color in peace.
One day I might feel ready to let my hair turn silver, or maybe I’ll be rocking a magenta sunset bun in the nursing home. If it makes me feel beautiful, at any age, that’s my business.
Aimée Lutkin is a writer based in Los Angeles, working on her first book for Dial Press on societal loneliness titled The Lonely Hunter. You can follow her on Twitter @alutkin.