Plus, we explain why attempting to revert back to your "natural" shade is a bad idea.

By Rebecca Norris
April 02, 2021
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Many women take a seat in their colorist's chair at the first sign of gray hair, and and while covering salt-and-pepper strands is a common practice, not everyone understands how gray hair reacts when exposed to dye. In an effort to break down everything there is to know about dyeing gray hair another hue, we tapped two color experts for their insight.

woman with greying hair smiling sitting on chair
Credit: katarina premfors / Getty Images

Why does hair turn gray?

As we age, our hair begins to lose pigment, which has led to this common myth: The less pigment our hair has, the more sensitive it becomes. The opposite is actually true. "The more pigment your hair has, the more sensitive it is to stress, nutrition, the use of chemical products, and smoking," explains Hitomi Ikeda, a master colorist at Rob Peetoom Salon Williamsburg. "Gray hair is actually stronger than pigmented hair." And while gray hair is more resilient, Cole Stevens Salon stylist and owner Diane Stevens notes that it is more coarse. As a result, it's wiry and can be resistant to fully absorbing hair dye. Because of this, she says it's very important to saturate the strands accordingly, which any skilled colorist will understand.

Are there any color limitations?

Since gray hair is more resistant to color, you might be wondering if some shades are off limits entirely. According to Stevens—who is a Nioxin Global Stylist and Wella Professionals Top Artist—it's not so much about the gray as it is about the cumulative chemical and environmental damage the hair has experienced over time. "In the right conditions, if the hair has not been over-processed or overexposed to heat, you can proceed with a color service," she says, noting that a consultation prior to the dye job will determine the best course of action.

And as logical as it may seem to dye your hair back to its original color once it turns gray, your "natural" hue can actually end up looking out of place. "It can actually make you look older because it doesn't match the tone of your skin anymore," Ikeda explains. "Keep in mind that when your hair is losing pigment, your skin is, too. Be mindful of that and think natural, but in stronger colors."

What are some maintenance tips?

No matter the color of your natural hair or shade of choice, it is important to remember that all dye-treated hair requires lots of moisture to maintain its vibrancy. "Treatments and masks are very important," Stevens says. "Using leave-in conditioner, detangling from the bottom toward the scalp and being gentle on the hair, is important, as well."

Can you dye gray hair yourself?

Even though you might feel confident dyeing your own hair—especially if you have been doing so for years, long before salt-and-pepper strands set in—Ikeda recommends seeking a professional colorist for any gray-related jobs. "They will help select a hair color that suits you or assist you in slowly going naturally gray," she says. And, if you don't want to fully embrace your gray? They will be able to help you pinpoint the perfect shade to complement your evolving skin tone, too.

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