Growing up, gray hair seemed like something to avoid at all costs. I watched my mother religiously color her curly tresses on a regular basis, as she knelt next to the bathtub with a home-dye kit in hand. Magazines featured young women with vibrant locks, and older models only appeared with full heads of silver, like my grandmother’s. If I noticed a gray hair peeking through at the temples of a colleague or friend, I assumed perhaps they hadn’t caught up on their latest stylist appointment. As for myself, I followed the same routine without a second thought: a glossy, fresh cut and color every few months.
Then, a global pandemic hit. Heading to the salon was no longer a safe or appropriate option, at least for several months. Many of us stayed at home behind Zoom screens where it seemed easier to hide stray grays, anyway. With time, as we returned to offices and our communities became safer, two camps seemed to emerge: women who dove right back into their pre-COVID beauty approach and women who suddenly sported gray hair.
Trust me: I’m not judging either way. If coloring your hair is your thing—I get it. But when my younger sister decided to let her grays come in, I was, as the kids say, shook. And… curious. Eventually, I took the plunge too and couldn’t be happier, so if you’re looking to (maybe) embrace the gray, here’s what to keep in mind.
It’s actually really normal to have gray hair in your 20s or 30s
“Women can begin to see gray as early as their teens,” says Cody Moorefield, a stylist at Brooklyn-based The Blonde Co salon. “The age at which one starts graying is often determined by genetics but sometimes can be brought on earlier by things like illness or stress.”
That reality runs counter to societal norms in the U.S., which frequently emphasize youth at all costs, particularly for women. “Unlike for men, society at large demands that women look a certain way—young and desirable—and growing old-er and going gray apparently are not part of that image,” adds Dr. Gaby Longsworth, certified hair practitioner and owner of Absolutely Everything Curly. “Women are taught from a young age to be embarrassed by their gray roots and to cover them up.”
According to editorial stylist and curly hair expert Lindsey Mollenhauer, it is fairly rare—and racy—for younger women to proudly sport their natural gray. However, there’s been a shift in recent years, which gave some people an opening to consider a different approach to beauty.
“As a woman in her 30s, I can say that I’ve seen a shift in the last few years when it comes to societal norms and expectations about aging,” says parenting writer Sarah Joseph. “When I was younger, any woman with even a hint of gray hair was considered ‘old.’ Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see young women with gray hair—and not just because they’re trying to be trendy. I think there’s been a general shift in attitudes about aging, and people are more accepting of the fact that everyone ages differently.”
Think about why you started coloring your hair
Usually women stop coloring their hair for two reasons, the cost or the time involved with frequent appointments, which can easily add up, says Moorefield. Anne Kreamer, columnist and author of Going Gray, notes that the prevalence of hair-dyeing is often due to outside pressures, such as the idea that all professional women color their hair or the lack of examples from friends and family members, which makes it hard not to confirm.
“Every four weeks, I saw a glimmer at my roots, and I hated the line between the gray and the dye,” says digital marketing supervisor Olivia Zurcher. “But I noticed how harsh every freshly dyed trip looked on me, and I got so curious what it could look like to be gray on a young person in their late 20s, since I had no examples. Then the pandemic hit, I had my second child, and it felt like a lot of work to keep up with. I started talking about making a change, and with the help of an amazing hairstylist, decided to embrace the decent amount of grays on my head at age 30. Dyeing my hair started to represent the opposite of what I wanted to model for my kids, too, which is that beauty is what you believe it is.”
Take it slow, and find a stylist with experience helping clients “go gray”
Most stylists note that hair grows only a quarter to a half inch per month, so if you decide to embrace gray hair, it’s not going to happen all at once. It also requires a deliberate approach to ensure the process is done correctly, so the tone of your hair blends into the rest of previously dyed strands and your hair health remains protected along the way.
“You can’t remove dye molecules from your hair in the same manner that you strip paint from wood,” says Mollenhauer. “The dye creates a chemical reaction within the hair strand. We can decolorize and then ‘color’ hair back to brown and back to blonde and so on, but we can’t ever ‘strip’ color from hair. With that said, coloring hair ‘back to gray’ is incredibly tricky—because it’s not gray at all. White hairs create the illusion of gray when there are enough of them throughout the head, so one of the hardest things to do, without causing the hair to disintegrate, is to get it white. It’s like walking a tightrope: decolorized hair, even when perfectly processed, will have a yellow cast that must be corrected through multiple strategic steps to appear white. And then to get the white to appear gray, surgically tiny sections of hair must be diffused throughout the entire head.”
Another option is to explore a demi-permanent shade to help blend your gray, which may soften the in-between stage of growing it out, notes Moorefield. And if the entire journey sounds daunting, Mollenhauer says not to worry, as many colorists have perfected this process and love to make it happen. She does recommend asking your stylist about their experience with helping clients go gray to ensure you’re working with the right fit.
“Not everyone will have that gorgeous, shiny silver gray hair, and some people might get the more yellow, dull grays,” says Moorefield. “Gray hair still can require some maintenance to keep it looking its best and your colorist should have some great recommendations on products and treatments you can use to help. Gray hair can also be a different texture than you’re used to, as sometimes it can grow in wirey and coarse. Coloring can often times soften that texture but if you’re deciding to grow it all out, you can make those grays more manageable with the right treatments or products.”
Consider playing with your overall style to complement your new look
For those who’ve taken the plunge, look for inspiration online: women you follow who might be sporting streaks of gray, popular accounts such as Grombre, hair hashtags like #GrayHairDontCare on Instagram and the well-known looks of celebrities like Stacy London. In general, says Moorefield, the more hair you cut off, the “faster” it will grow out.
“I recommend clients opt for a short haircut, or add more layers to reduce the time spent during the grow-out phase,” says Mollenhauer. “With that said, I also recommend that they attempt to color their previously colored hair ‘gray’ in a way that mimics their natural graying pattern, leaving the new growth alone completely as it grows in. An alternative statement look that I am starting to see and dig replaces the previously colored ends with a vivid shade like flamingo pink or highlighter yellow while the gray new growth remains uncolored. This bold option is less expensive, usually less damaging, and can be a fun expression during the temporary grow-out phase.”
Travel writer and expert Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon started seeing grays in her early 40s, mostly at her hairline, so she eventually cut it. “My goal was to grow a big, bold and bodacious silver halo of hair, a style that would make a statement as loud as the dreadlocked topknot for which I’d become known,” she says. “But I turned out to have not as much gray as I’d thought when I was fighting it—the silver was only at my hairline, with patches at my crown. And wearing my hair natural was a lot more work than locs. So, three years after my stylist cut my locs (which she wisely had kept for me), she permanently reattached all 80 of them! It took five hours and some serious Black Girl Magic. Now, six years later, I proudly rock my ombré head of hair, and look forward to it becoming entirely silver.”
Own your decision, whether it’s a statement or practical choice
Although the recent pandemic prompted some people to grow out their gray, others are choosing to embrace it for different reasons, such as wanting to spend their time and money elsewhere or to make a statement. Other women view it as a way to showcase self-love and protest the male gaze of beauty norms that says youth is more desirable, says Mollenhauer.
“The pandemic allowed me to take a step back and reassess how I want the world to see me, including my physical appearance,” says Joseph. “I’d been dying my hair for a long time—every few months, I’d get an expensive color treatment to cover the gray. But when the pandemic hit, it got me thinking: why was I doing that? I realized that I was getting color treatments for all the wrong reasons. So, I decided to embrace my gray hair. It’s liberating to know that I don’t have to conform to societal norms about aging—and that’s something I want other women in their 30s to know as well.”
It’s liberating to know that I don’t have to conform to societal norms about aging—and that’s something I want other women in their 30s to know as well.
“There are so many benefits to letting the natural silvers shine, including eliminating those annoying touch-ups every three to four weeks, saving a bunch of money, and choosing to ban those harmful hair chemicals for better health,” says Dr. Longsworth. “Besides, many women are realizing that silvers in all their forms can be gorgeous and look beautiful on practically everyone. When treated right, gray hair can look shiny, healthy, and gorgeous.”
Trust yourself, especially if people have different reactions
When I first allowed gray to peek through my hairline, I noticed colleagues and friends… noticing. At first, it felt a little strange, like an unspoken “I could never” or some type of judgment, which reinforced the initial uncertainty in my own brain. However, the more time went on, the less I thought about it, though I still have moments of looking at myself and pausing.
Christine P. had a similar experience. “I have dark, dark brown hair, and even though my gray hair is pretty evenly distributed, in the last few years, it has really popped out. I feel like my gray hair is authentically me—it’s a representation of my age and life that I’ve lived. But that age can also equal ‘old’. I don’t feel old but in the wrong light, with little make-up and my gray hair fully on display, my reflection doesn’t always feel right.”
It doesn’t help that these beauty norms are reinforced as early as childhood. Zurcher recalls her 10-year-old niece looking at her with surprise before asking if she got highlights. “I explained that this was just how my hair came in, and I was not going to dye it anymore. She replied, ‘Oh…’ with a huge ‘yikes’ face, and then said, ‘OK, well, if that’s what you like,’ doing her best to be polite.”
In response, encourage others to ditch these expectations, including yourself, and welcome positive feedback whenever possible. Zurcher’s favorite comment thus far came from a fellow woman at the hair salon, who told her gray hair was like a “beautiful fingerprint.”
Enjoy potentially liking your hair—and yourself—more
Many women feel a sense of liberation at being more comfortable in their skin, with more capacity to focus on engaging with the world rather than obsessing about how they’re being perceived, says Kreamer.
“Gray hair alone doesn’t age you,” says Greaves-Gabbadon. “But other things—lack of exercise, ill health, negative and limiting thoughts—certainly will. Focus on fixing those and you’ll come to see your silver strands as the natural highlights they really are. You’re as old as you feel and you can rock any hair color if you want to.”
Entrepreneur and author Hitha Palepu stopped dyeing her hair more than three years ago, and calls the experience “freeing,” noting that she actually likes her hair now and has never felt more like herself.”
“Mostly, I’m just happy doing less and feeling more like myself,” concludes Zurcher. “Plus, I really love that my kids, my nieces and nephews, and friends and family see an example of gray at a young age.”