Few women welcome gray hair with open arms. When the salt outnumbers the pepper, most of us—as many as 75 percent of women, according to various sources—turn to the beauty industry for an all-over color correction. But once you start dyeing your hair to cover the grays, how do you know when enough is enough?
When 56-year-old former brunette, Paula Winnig, was 35 years old, a number of well-meaning friends handed her their colorists' business cards, a not-so-subtle nod to her rapidly graying hair. She took the hint and began dyeing her locks, a practice she continued until quitting for good at age 50. "I hated having to schedule my life around my roots showing," says Winnig. "I also hated the expense, and I didn't like looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger looking back at me." With her hair dyeing years firmly behind her, Winnig couldn't be happier. "I am thrilled to have my own color again—it is very freeing," she says. "Coloring my hair was a necessary evil, but I'm glad I don't do it anymore."
Paula made her decision from the gut—she knew she resented the entire hair-dyeing shebang. But if you're on the fence, consider these tell-tale signs you should go gracefully gray:
Traditional hair dye that deposits color typically won't damage your 'do, says Melissa Piliang, M.D., a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. But if you engage in the more involved ritual of processing your hair to lighten it in preparation for a light-colored dye, damage is almost certainly in your hair destiny. "The hair fiber has a coating called the cuticle," says Dr. Piliang. "When your hair is healthy, the cuticle looks like the shingles on a roof, all laying down. When it's damaged, the shingles can flake off or peel back. Bleaching wears away cuticle." The result? Hair that can be described as 'straw-like,' dry and brittle, or frizzy. Split ends, flyaways, and hair of varying lengths are other sure signs of damage and breakage, she says.
If you can't seem to keep up with the advance of your gray hair (either at the roots or all over), it may be worth it to leave your coloring days behind you, says Sarah Nitz, contributor for Latest-Hairstyles.com. "If you have an appointment at the salon every two weeks, but you could go every week, it might just be time to let it grow in," she says. "You want to enjoy every minute of your pending (or current!) retirement, traveling, visiting with friends, not visiting the salon."
Whether you've been coloring your hair for days or years, unexplained itchiness, soreness, or oozing of the scalp may indicate you're allergic to the hair dye, itself. "A fair number of people are allergic to an ingredient in hair dye called p-Phenylenediamine (PPDA), which is what gives the dye its permanent color," says Dr. Piliang. "The symptoms can be pretty mild in the beginning so people don't always recognize it." While all hues of permanent dye contain PPDA, semi-permanent dye and wash-out colors often don't, though they do require more frequent application, she advises.
If your once lustrous mane has gone from it's original honey gold to highlighted ash blonde to full-on platinum over your years in the styling chair, it may be time to give up the ghost. "When you've gone lighter and lighter to camouflage your silver roots, so that you're almost white, that's a sign," says Nitz. "If you're going so light with your hair color that it only slightly differs from what's growing in, it makes sense to stop coloring."
There's no way around it: If you've been processing your hair and it shows signs of damage, it's time to stop the harsh treatments and take a few steps to repair it. "It's time to put down the dryer, put down the iron—stop the things that are damaging your hair," says Dr. Piliang. "Your hair is biologically dead but underneath, new, healthy hair is growing." Next, give that new hair a chance to thrive by getting a haircut to remove the damaged ends. Then get regular trim-ups once a month, which should keep your hair at a constant length as it grows out. "It removes the split ends and keeps them from splitting farther up the shaft," she says. "Each cut trims off the thinnest portion, and your hair looks thicker." Finally, practice healthy hair habits, she advises: Use a heavy conditioner that contains natural oils (coconut, moroccan, or argan), a heat protectant product, and specially formulated hair-strengthening products. Tip: "With all those products, you don't need it up by your scalp; you can start at ear level," she says.
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