Bangs, layers and highlights are your best friends. Tousled pieces hide regrowth, so you won’t need touch-ups every 10 minutes. "A choppy cut with long bangs and bold, sunny streaks is an immediate de-ager," says colorist Brad Johns of the Elizabeth Arden Salon in New York City.
TLC is key. Heat styling and chemical processing make hair porous and prone to breakage. Healing masks and other hair-repair products are an absolute must. "Spend on hair treatments as you would on wrinkle creams," Johns says.
If you’re thinking red, go blond. "Red hair, unless it’s natural, is tough on mature skin tones," Johns notes. "It will expose and exaggerate blotchiness, brown spots or sallow undertones. But a honey blond with golden tones works every time."
To lock in highlights: Clairol Nice n’ Easy Color Seal Conditioning Gloss ($5). To add dimensional lowlights: Garnier Color Breaks ($7). To upgrade fading color: Matrix Shade Memory Sparkling Blondes Color Enhancing Foam Conditioner ($18). To get a natural-looking shade: Revlon Colorist ($16).
Women of Color
Don’t go to extremes. "African-American women should avoid going blond or red unless their hair is left natural and cropped very short," says Rita Hazan of the Rita Hazan Salon in New York City. "Rich chestnuts and spice colors add warmth to dark skin tones. You can also benefit from a few well-chosen highlights."
Go semipermanent. A semipermanent tint is "practically foolproof, since it won’t lighten your hair color, just enhance it and cover gray," Hazan says. "Try going one shade lighter than you think you need. Most women choose a shade that’s too dark for them."
Deep condition daily. "Skip right past anything labeled ‘lite,’ " Hazan says. "You want a heavy emollient conditioner packed with shea butter, plus hot oil treatments twice a week."
To color safely without ammonia: L’Oréal Paris Natural Match ($12). To strengthen overworked hair: Alberto VO5 Moisture Milks Passion Fruit Smoothie Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner ($1 each). To hydrate and smooth: Burt’s Bees Hair Repair Shea Butter & Grapefruit Deep Conditioner ($8). To compensate for heat styling: Dove Advanced Color Care Therapy Leave-In Glossing Mist ($6).
Attitude makes it work. Gray hair requires packaging, or your look can slip from great to granny. Haircut, makeup and clothes need to be in sync and of-the-minute. "Stay in shape and maintain a lively body language—think of Meryl Streep’s stride and energy in Prada," says Constance Hartnett of the Frederic Fekkai Salon in New York City.
Your best gray may not be your natural gray. "Adding cool, ashy highlights can improve the color and is one of the best-kept secrets of stylish gray-haired women," Hartnett says.
Stay smooth. Straighter hair reflects light, de-emphasizing lines and creases in your face. A silicone serum can help you shine. So can a deep-moisturizing shampoo and a ceramic-coated flatiron designed to dry wet hair.
For a glossy look: Frederic Fekkai Glossing Sheer Shine Mist ($23). For silkier texture: Terax MieleHydrating Shampoo ($20). To eliminate yellow: Phyto PhytArgent Whitening Shampoo ($22) or L’Oréal Professionnel Colorist Collection White Violet Color Shampoo ($15). For smoothing wiry frizz: L’Oréal Professionnel Smooth by Textureline Fluidity Masque ($14).
Your twenty-something shade won’t work when you’re 50. Extremely dark hair can look hard and fake next to mature skin. Downshifting from espresso brown to a softer shade, like maple or chestnut, can erase years.
Your makeup tells you if your shade is right. "If you’ve gone too dark, you’ll be piling on concealer to erase shadows and circles exaggerated by that inky frame of hair," says colorist Sharon Dorram-Krause of the John Frieda Salon in New York City. "If your makeup seems to be working, you’ve got the right balance."
It’s OK to go brown-gray. A lot of women are choosing semipermanent color, which covers some gray but not all. Although it washes out in about six weeks, it looks more natural and dimensional than a flat, permanent color.
To adjust depth of color: Garnier Nutrisse Nourishing Nutri-Browns ($7). To maintain color longer: John Frieda Luminous Color Glaze ($10). To gently blend gray without ammonia: Clairol Natural Instincts ($9).
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Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2007.