Hair colour for the over-40s

As you get older, your hair begins to change colour - here's how to deal with it

Once you hit 40, you will probably notice that your hair starts to change. Often it becomes dryer, along with your skin, and for many women, this is when their grey hairs really start to get a grip.

If you are used to colouring your hair, it often helps to break up your colour now and switch to highlights and lowlights rather than have an all-over shade, especially if you've had an obviously artificial colour. Strong, bright, all-over artificial shades are fun when you're young, but they need a Zandra Rhodes-size personality to carry them off when you're older. Instead of looking current, it can make you look like you're trying too hard to look younger.

blog imageblog imageIt also pays to go a little lighter at this time, as the pigment in your skin is starting to fade and your hair colour would naturally keep step with it if left to its own devices. One tip is to think of the colour you had as a child. If you were blonde as a child and over the years your hair has faded to brown, for instance, you can probably take added blonde shades very well. Highlights AND lowlights, especially graduated towards your face, are very flattering and can give your hair colour real depth.

At 43 I decided that my naturally fair hair had gone dark enough and was verging on mousy, so I switched back to blonde. There are five shades in there, including lowlights and highlights, with the back and the undersides darker, and the front and top layers lighter. This gives the hair more vivacity and impression of movement.

Grey hair

blog imageWestern society has a problem with grey hair because we do not respect ageing, or any outward appearance of it. I remember seeing a gloriously grey Emmy-Lou Harris in the 1990s, and thinking how beautiful she was, just as my mother -in-law (fiercely blonde in her late 70s) exclaimed: "God, hasn't she got OLD!!!"

blog imageblog imageWhether or not to go grey is therefore a very personal matter. Many women choose to cover their grey hair in their 40s but allow it come through in their 50s, for instance. My view is that blondes can get away with redying to blonde shades, but that darker-haired women always look better allowing the grey to come through, especially if their eyebrows and eye colour are dark. blog imageblog imageAs you can see here, Helen Mirren switches from blonde to grey and back again as feels like it, or as roles demand, while these before and after pictures of author Anne Kreamer speak volumes - going grey took years off her, compared with her heavy chestnut colour.

blog imageGrey hair doesn't usually come in all at once - some women get threads appearing all over, like Charlotte Rampling (left), while others find it appears more in certain areas, especially around the face. However, if you colour your hair, the place you'll notice the grey is your roots. If you decide to let the grey hair grow in and the fake colour grow out, switch to temporary colourants until about 60 per cent of your grey has grown in. Then get your hair cut and allow the grey to show.

A great approach when going grey is to ADD more grey than there is naturally in the form of highlights. This can look very pretty, as grey in itself is a beautiful colour with many variations - pewter, charcoal, platignum etc. Many dark-skinned, dark-eyed women look very good with lowlights added back in quite a thick section around the facial area - creating a dark frame around the face, or the obverse, with the front section of the hair made much paler than the rest, again creating a frame. Personally, I'd love to see a grey-haired woman with fine but zingingly artificial streaks like purple, pink and blue in her completely grey hair - it would be perfectly clear that you're not naffly trying to look younger with this treatment, but simply more interesting.

Salon colour

blog image Grey hair is different in structure from pigmented hair - often it is thicker, dryer and more wiry. It also takes artificial colour differently. Therefore I would recommend salon colouring rather than at-home colorants once your hair goes grey. Your hair needs more tlc and over-the-counter options are less effective - it can be very useful to have the heat-activated deep conditioners and subtle heat-activated colour glazes that only salons offer. At home, use shampoos and conditioners specifically designed for grey hair, which will help support the colour.

Watch out for the colour of your eyebrows and consider having them lightened if they are very dark. Brow lightening can soften your whole face. And keep your brows in good trim - heavy, dark eyebrows coupled with greying hair can look surprisingly mannish, especially as your face loses its youthful bloom. If you have the odd grey, wiry eyebrow hair coming through, it often behaves differently from your normal eyebrow hairs and can't be tamed. Pluck it out or cut it off at the roots with sharp scissors.

Cut and condition

blog imageAs for length, again that's a personal matter. As you can see here, Dame Judi Dench looks great with very short hair (she's also, btw, using one of my fave clothing techniques - picking up her eye colour in her accessories), but some women prefer to keep their hair longer. More important than length when it comes to grey hair is the condition. Whether you colour, or don't colour, once you're grey, eat lots of protein to keep your hair in good fettle, and give your locks a hot-oil treatment once a week - you need to condition the bejasus out of your hair now to keep it looking good. And don't smoke! Grey hair picks up cigarette smoke and changes to an unflattering brassy yellow.

Grey hair and coloured hair may take more time and attention than naturally pigmented hair, but it is worth the effort - get your hair right and it's like putting a jewel into a great setting.

Comments (8)

Tags: beauty hair grey-hair ageing hair-colour

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sue peck
Posts: 10
grey hair colour
Reply #8 on : Fri July 18, 2008, 15:42:33
Great info - I have very silver white hair that everyone comments on - other women love it - men are a bit wary.... Will take on board Helen Mirren's look and have a creamy blonde put in when needed. At the moment I have pale pink going through it and wouldn't swop it for the world!
Posts: 10
grey hair
Reply #7 on : Wed August 12, 2009, 17:37:10
Thank you for this article, I'm sick of people telling me it ages me or that i have spoiled my lovelyshiny hair. i love it i feel free, i'm 51 i have grey hair and i'm proud of it, i think it looks cool and chic and every week i look different. Its not as though i have given up, far from it, i'm embracing another phase of my life and doing it my way. I'm naturally dark, so going blonder is not an option, natures highlights are much more appealing and sexy. watch this space,
Posts: 10
grey hair
Reply #6 on : Thu May 27, 2010, 12:45:21
I have long grey hair and add pink highlights. its awsome. Men give me compliments constantly and tell me they wish their wives would quit dying their hair. I never got compliments in my younger years when my hair was long and brown. If your thinking about going natural, go for it.
liz Sibley
Posts: 10
grey hair
Reply #5 on : Fri March 04, 2011, 18:42:46
as a 53 year old woman struggling with the philosophical purity of grey vs color - and after having done about 20 hours of research - including reading books on the subject - thank-you - for giving what I consider more concrete advice : lowlights and highlights, eyebrows, made my day...and i've decided to go grey!
Posts: 2
From head to toe
Reply #4 on : Fri March 04, 2011, 22:13:20
Liz, I'm so pleased you found this article useful. It's several years now since I wrote it, so I think I'll revisit this space very soon. If you're going to go grey, consider getting plenty of grey into your wardrobe - a column of grey from head to foot can be immensely flattering, especially in soft fabrics like satin, marled cashmere and other knits.
Posts: 10
Grey Hair
Reply #3 on : Mon July 25, 2011, 06:11:05
I'ts been 11 months since I've colored my hair. I had to touch it up every two weeks when I dyed it. I wanted to stop coloring. I've kept it up in a scrunchie and under my hat most of the past winter. Now I've gotten most of the color cut out and I have a medium length cut with a few layers and my hair is wavy. I love it! I believe one of the most important ways to look your best with grey hair is to have a good hair STYLE. I don't feel that the grey ages a person but rather the style of the hair. I keep my skin in good condition and wear a flattering colored lipstick. I'm happy.
Dee buzick
Posts: 10
grey haircoloring
Reply #2 on : Fri July 13, 2012, 15:07:02
Is there a grey hair color that can achieve the look i like, its dark charcoal grey and a lighter shade at the same time. I have been coloring my hair with mens touch of grey. it lets some grey show but then when it fades looks like another hair color thats faded away. my natural hair color is between a medium brown and dark brown
have quite abit of grey but only in strips not all over grey like i want.
Posts: 2
Salon vs at-home
Reply #1 on : Wed July 18, 2012, 02:18:14
Hi Dee. I think you'd need to consult a professional colourist on that one. Much depends on the natural absorbency and texture of your hair, and professional ranges also have much more staying power and variety than home colourants because they have a higher percentage of active ingredients. It's also possible your colourist could recommend something you could use at home between sessions.