Over 40 Hair: The Long and the Short
The conventional wisdom for hair after 40 is that a well-mannered middle length works for everyone. We beg to differ. Your sexiest hair length may be a lot longer — or shorter — than you thought.
No matter how great you look, if you’re over 40, your hair isn’t what it used to be. Hormonal changes (especially at menopause), years of chemical processing and heat styling, even dieting and smoking, can contribute to skimpier volume, a receding hairline, broken wisps around the face, and a widening part. The gradual decline of estrogen slows hair growth; it also reduces production of collagen, so hair becomes drier and more brittle and loses shine. Gray hair — whether you color it or not — has a coarser texture.
You can fake healthier-looking hair in the short term — and boost hair health in the long term — with the right products and care. What you need now, no matter what your hair’s length: low-sudsing, detergent-free shampoos that are loaded with humectants; rich, nourishing conditioners; protein-based masques; concentrated silicone or botanical serums to reduce frizz and add shine; non-drying mousses and styling sprays; creams to create a body-building base for blow-drying; light, leave-in conditioners for smoothness, silkiness, and manageability.
Short Hair Pros and Cons
Lena Kaptein, 42, cropped her bob in 1994 at the suggestion of a hairdresser friend who said she needed a more modern look. She instantly landed an Aveda campaign and has kept her short hair since. "My bob was too much work — and all that teasing and hairspray are so not sexy. My son, my husband, and I have the same haircut — we all wake up looking like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Two minutes later, with a little molding paste, I look amazing."
Short Hair Suits You If…
Short hair can work for you if you have very delicate or very large features and a fairly firm jaw, a well-shaped head, and an elegant neck. The key is proportion. The secret, according to hair guru John Frieda, is the jawline: If the bottom tip of your chin is more than 2 1/2 inches lower than the bottom of your earlobe, short hair won’t look good unless you increase the length at the nape.
Short Hair Pros
You never have to worry about your hair looking messy, rain wrecking your blow-out, or (if it’s really short) hat-hair. It’s easy to disguise regrowth by eliminating a part or running your hands through for a choppy, tousled effect. Because it’s cut frequently, short hair tends to be very healthy, even with extreme color changes.
Short Hair Traps
A cut that’s too shaved at the nape looks masculine. Highlights can look spotty if cut comes after color, and skinny, discreet ones don’t work as well as chunky, bold streaks do. Virgin color on a super-edgy cut can be boring — unless it’s gray. But a vibrant hair hue can act as a permanent accessory on short hair, according to color pro Brad Johns. (If you go for a bright hair color, tone down your makeup for day.)
Nicky Kunz, 53, has always had short hair; it’s been gray since she stopped coloring it at 32. "I have a small face, and my features would just get lost in long hair. Every two weeks I buzz it myself, since no one else gets it right. My hair is dry, so I use leave-in moisturizers."
The Best Short Haircuts
The Cap: Shortest of all, and cropped like an adolescent boy or a Marine, this works best for very textured, tight curls and very coarse, wiry hair. Well-defined brows help, as do strong bone structure and a big dose of charisma.
Choppy: On everyone’s most edgy list of "things to try someday," the ultra-short shag has a kind of rock-band/French gamine appeal. It’s not for the shy. But it is perfect for those with wispy, fine hair that just goes limp when bluntly bobbed; it also suits wavy hair that has built-in body. What’s key is to vary the length of some sections for an irregular look. Piece-y cuts of about 2 to 3 inches all over can be tucked behind your ear, tousled for more texture, or combed flat for a more classic look.
Bangs: Full, shaggy bangs or long, graduated bangs that can be swept to the side give short cuts the illusion of long hair that’s been pulled back. If you have thin, overplucked, skimpy, or misshapen brows, short hair with long bangs gives you the extra definition you’re missing. Bangs can also hide a low, small forehead. Keep them jagged, not Campbell’s-Soup-kid straight, for sex appeal.
Short Hair Care
If you do one thing, use your hands and styling creams or pomades to break up the layers for a tousled, frizz-free look. Try Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Shaping Cream ($14); Kerastase Paris Lumiere Nutri-Sculpt Finishing Cream ($29).
Hide your dark or gray roots with a color-intensifying mask or shampoo that blurs regrowth and stretches the time between salon appointments. Try Goldwell Color Glow Treatment Be Blonde ($14) and Colorective Bloody Mary Shampoo ($34). Shortcuts for short cuts: try a creamy all-in-one shampoo, body wash, and conditioner, like Sephora Triple Layer Cake Hair & Body Wash ($15). Thermasilk Moisture-Infusing 2-in-1 Shampoo Plus Conditioner ($14) is perfect for shorties who shampoo daily.
If you have chemically straightened or color-treated hair, use a conditioning cream like Alberto VO5 Sheer Hairdressing ($6) every day, and a rich mask like Frederic Fekkai Technician Color Care Mask ($34) once a week.
Long Hair Pros and Cons
Lisa Berkley, 46, a longhair "lifer," gave up straightening her naturally curly hair. "I’m more bohemian than sophisticated — we live on a farm, and I’m in jeans and tees when I’m not working. My daughter, Isabelle, is 8 and a mini-me. We love our curls loose and wild. I even enhance the curls on top with a curling iron to exaggerate the look! I give my hair even more focus with beachy highlights that mimic what the sun does."
Long Hair Suits You If…
Long hair can work for you if your hair is healthy and your cut contemporary. Unless you have a hairdresser on call, aim for a length somewhere between collarbone and cleavage. "Long hair needs to be kept healthy with regular trims and conditioning, plus yearly updates to evaluate length and cut," says Mitch Barry, whose long-haired clients include Bernadette Peters and Christie Brinkley.
Long Hair Pros
You needn’t wash and style it every day. Long hair is a showcase for color (it doesn’t have to look natural anymore). Oh — and men think it’s sexy.
Long Hair Traps
Too long can look weird if the proportions are wrong — e.g., if you’re a petite five-footer with a Rapunzel mane. Too big a color change can spell disaster unless you’re willing to devote major time and money to maintenance. Long-hair accessories need careful editing — especially headbands, glittery barrettes, and froufrou clips, which are as silly as microminis on a grown-up.
Except for one "disastrous" bob during pregnancy, Donna Bunte, 47, has had long hair all her life. "It makes me feel young and feminine, and my husband just adores it. It’s layered now — more contemporary looking — but I can still pull it back when I want to."
The Best Long Haircuts
Layers: Cutting long, face-framing pieces into your hair is equivalent to wearing the hot jeans that make your legs look longer and slimmer. Layers have a softening effect that flatters your features and jawline.
Parts: A side part adds sophistication. Center parts work only if you have deep, full bangs or stick-straight hair. A slightly messy, off-center part works for everyone, and helps camouflage roots.
Fringe: Not only are bangs a Botox alternative, they also add instant style, dressing the face even when hair is pulled back into a lazy chignon or ponytail.
For fine hair: Grow it no longer than shoulder- or collarbone-length, or it will look skimpy. Thickening products or volumizers will add body at the roots; a protein shampoo can help build bulk. Try Bumble and Bumble Thickening Spray ($19).
Blown straight: Heat straightening is a hair-health hazard. Minimize damage with a deep 3-minute conditioner like Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine ($4) twice a week.
Long Hair Care
If you use a flat iron, use a heat-protecting spray or cream first. Try: Umberto Beverly Hills Controller ($9); Matrix Biolage Fortifying Heat Styler ($13); L’Oreal Textureline Hotstyle Ironingcreme ($14).
If you color and heat-style, use extra-moisturizing shampoos and conditioners. Try Neutrogena Triple Moisture Cream Lather Shampoo ($6) and Silk Touch Leave-In Cream with olive extract and sweet almond oil ($7).
If you shampoo every day, don’t. Daily shampoos and blow-outs dry out hair and strip color. Try Stila Hair Refresher in Creme Bouquet ($28) as an in-between solution for greasy scalp or cigarette smells.
Want the latest beauty, fashion and lifestyle tips? Click here to sign up for our fabulous weekly newsletter!