Ask a Beauty Editor: How to Transition to Natural Gray Hair

Trust—it will be worth it.

Woman with grey hair blowing across her face.
Photo: Andreas Kuehn/Getty Images

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Reader question: What is the best step-by-step way to go gray? —Mary Fouladi

As more women make the decision to go gray, a silver-laden style is getting sexier by the minute. But the problem with embracing gray hair lies in the fact that it doesn't happen overnight. It starts with a pigment-deprived strand or two, or worse, the dreaded demarcation line (i.e., exclusively gray roots in particular sections of your head), making it all the more challenging to commit to the natural process.

First, let's clear up a common myth about how gray hair works. Hair doesn't actually "turn" gray—once a hair follicle produces hair, the color is set. That means that a strand is never going to change color unless you color your hair. However, since our hair follicles naturally produce less color as they age, they can grow in gray (which you should never pluck, BTW).

In other words, growing out gray hair is a process—and not a fast one. And while you can choose to dye the rest of your hair gray, that comes with its own set of problems. "As time passes, your silver hair shows itself sooner and sooner because full-coverage color and highlights do not adhere or look as vibrant as they used to," says Lorraine Massey, creator of the Curly Girl Method, owner of Spiral, founder of CurlyWorld, and author of Curly Girl: The Handbook and Silver Hair: The Handbook. "This means you have to color more often, and this starts to become an exhausting (and unsustainable) time and money drain that never ends with healthy hair. Remember that unhealthy hair can often age you more than the color itself."

But there is an alternative—and that is going gray the natural way. To make the transition period a little easier, here's what the process will entail—in addition to some helpful tips—when converting to gray hair.

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Apply hair concealers.

When your hair first starts growing gray, you may start to notice a demarcation line where the color stops and gray begins. "It's usually this initial line of demarcation that bothers people—I call it 'escape roots,'" says Massey. "As you begin to see the gray light, it will be like the phases of the moon. The first phase is like the new moon that appears like a landing strip." In this initial growing process, the goal is to camouflage.

Hair concealers like Toppik Hair Filler (from $8; can blend with existing hair strands to create the appearance of even color (plus it can help with hair thinning!). And there's a DIY option: "I suggest finding an eyeshadow color that matches your tone and mixing it with your favorite non-silicone hair gel. You can apply it when the hair is damp to temporarily cover a demarcation line," says Massey. "And get creative with it—you can wear twisted head scarfs, wraps, bandannas, and hats, or weave bobby pins through the part at the roots to temporarily disguise this line of demarcation and add volume that helps camouflage the line."

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Avoid the urge to dye—opt for strategic lowlights instead.

The next phase is the waxing crescent portion where the gray is more visible but still less than half your hair. You may be more tempted than ever to dye it all away at this point, but hold out! "Please avoid touching the new growth with permanent color—it tends to grab the silver hair unevenly and will set you back, creating another color vicious cycle," says Massey. "This was my biggest regret—and that of many other women—when growing out the silver. Those that did in-between colors deeply regretted it as it just prolonged the inevitable, leaving the hair and color looking worse."

Instead, opt for demi-permanent lowlights as they are much less damaging—this will deposit color (lasting approximately 30 washes) instead of stripping your hair of it. In addition to being less maintenance, the darker base of lowlights will blend with your natural gray and allow for a smoother transition. If you're looking for some transitional hair inspo, try the salt and pepper look, a combination of black and gray shades that looks naturally shiny with some traces of white.

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Go in for frequent trims.

The next step is to let your hair grow. "Once you're far enough, you can cut off the remaining color with a pixie cut and transition that way," says Massey. Keep in mind that the length you want (i.e., pixie vs. bob) will change how quickly you can transition to gray. Think about the look you want and ask your stylist about an appropriate cutting schedule so you don't get overwhelmed by the timeline. And remember to keep up with smaller regular trims if you want to expedite this process, especially if you're growing out previously dyed hair that is dry and damaged.

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Eliminate unwanted tones.

Once you've successfully finished breaking out of the highlighting/cutting cycle, you'll want to maintain that gray mane. As with any platinum or any cooler shade, you may find that sun exposure can cause your hair to oxidize and get brassy over time. First, Massey recommends avoiding products that contain sulfates and silicones. "Sulfates can dry out the hair cuticles and silicone sticks to the hair, making the silver hair appear more yellow."

To counteract the brass, cycle in a balancing product or toner once a week. "My favorite product is CurlyWorld With or Without Hue ($48; It can help during the transitioning phase when you have two opposing colors on your head—the new silver growth and the old dyed hair—because it will help soften clashing tones," says Massey.

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