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Advice on Hair Color

We generally spot our first gray hairs when we hit 30. Understand the art and science of coloring them before you take the plunge.

We have come to fear the prospect of graying hair
Talk to a young woman about coloring her hair, and she will enthusiastically regale you with detailed descriptions of her favorite actress’ butternut tresses, alluring advertisements for multi-tonal color in top fashion magazines and her best friend’s latest salon sojourn.

Ask a woman who is starting to go gray about her reasons for coloring her hair, and her words will echo famed British mountain climber George Mallory’s rationale for ascending Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”

We have come to fear the prospect of graying hair—an ostensible cultural crime in an age-obsessed society. Roughly 70 percent of women and 12 percent of men will color their hair, according to Philip Kingsley, a world-renowned trichologist (hair specialist) whose celebrity clients—from Sigourney Weaver to Ivana Trump—pack his London and New York clinics. (He also estimates the number of men who color will continue to grow, as there’s no longer any stigma attached to the decision.)

“I turned gray in my very early 20s, and I chose to dye my hair—and have ever since,” says Dr. Marcy L. Zwelling-Aamot, an internal medicine specialist in Los Alamitos, California, and the immediate past president of the Los Angeles County Medical Association. “I will probably always color my hair. It’s a personal choice. And during the two to three hours a month when I'm in the salon, under the dryer, I get a nice break. I can't hear my beeper!”

Hair may start to gray at any age, and there is no gender distinction. Most women will spot their first gray hairs by age 30. By age 50, up to half of their hair may whiten.

“There is a slight genetic link, but this has not been specifically determined and is probably pretty weak—although if your mother or father turned gray early, there is surely a chance that you will follow,” Dr. Zwelling-Aamot explains.

Some women believe the myth that brunettes turn gray earlier. In reality, there is no accelerated pace; gray hairs simply stand out when your hair is dark.

“Hair turns gray when our bodies stop depositing ‘melanin’ and ‘pheomelanin’ into the hair follicle,” Dr. Zwelling-Aamot tells Both of these natural pigments, found in our skin cells and at the base of hair follicles, are responsible for color—or the lack thereof. Melanin cells, known as “melanocytes,” simply turn off.

“Production usually slows down with age,” Dr. Zwelling-Aamot says, and hair also becomes more fine and dry as oil glands put on the brakes. Women tempted to pull out their first gray hairs should resist the temptation, as this may damage the follicle and cause coarse regrowth.

Dermatologists usually advise patients to have gray hair treated by a qualified colorist, whose experience will help prevent the most common problem amateurs face: unwanted yellowing or bluish tones. Gray hair can pose a coloring challenge because it is more resistant to color, lacking natural hair’s yellow or blue pigments. Using the wrong product may yield unwanted shades. (Red dyes, for example, may cause gray hair to turn pink.)

If you opt for the do-it-yourself approach, select a vegetable or semi-permanent—rather than permanent—color, which is gentler and will last four to eight weeks. If your goal is to eliminate the gray without changing your overall color, apply dye specifically to your roots.

When selecting a product, make sure the box states that it is designed for gray coverage. Before coloring, perform the recommended “patch test” or “strand test” 24–48 hours in advance to rule out the possibility of an allergic reaction. When you’re ready to color, read all of the manufacturer’s directions and follow them carefully.

For some women, going “gracefully gray” is the best option. (Think Elizabeth Taylor.) Well-maintained gray hair can be both healthy and attractive, creating an air of distinction. Regularly shampoo with a formula specially suited to gray hair, which contains blue tints that prevent yellowing.

“Graying is not a problem of major medical concern, but aesthetically it may not be in keeping with societal expectations,” Dr. Zwelling-Aamot says. “A woman—or man, for that matter—should not be concerned about wanting to dye hair. It’s no different from deciding about makeup, pedicures or the movie you’ll go to see on Friday night. These are personal issues that make a statement and reflect self-image.” Find Your Best Color With Stellure

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