The Best Ways to Cover Gray Hair

Updated 05/15/19
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Covering Gray Hair Is Tricky

Kate Middleton. Max Mumby/Indigo for Getty

Covering up gray hair is a special science. Gray hair is difficult to color because it tends to be wiry, and the dye doesn't soak in easily. From choosing the right color to deciding whether to cover your grays at home or head to the salon, our tips will help you navigate your options.

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Maintaining Healthy Hair

People who have never colored their hair worry that coloring it to cover grays will cause damage. It's a reasonable concern, but one that you can work around.

In general, if you're worried about hair damage, you'll want to get your hair colored professionally rather than attempting to do it yourself with a box color. The chemical formula in semi-permanent drugstore colors can actually be stronger than those used in salons.

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Covering Grays at Home

It can be tricky to cover up gray hair because it tends to be stubborn and wiry. However, you can color your own hair as long as you are opting for all-over color or if you are covering up your roots. In fact, coloring your own grays will save you some time and money.

Before you decide to dye your own hair, take a few things into consideration:

  • Only use permanent hair dye. Semi-permanent dyes aren't very effective on gray hairs.
  • If you are going for highlights or aiming for a drastic color change, it's best to not do it on your own. Home hair color is best if you are only going two shades lighter or darker than your natural color.
  • Be sure to follow all of the directions in the box.
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Retouching Roots Yourself

If you are trying to cover up your roots that are growing in gray, you have a few options.

Hair Mascara

"Mascaro" was used in the 19th century by men and women to temporarily cover a few gray strands. Since it's so easy and fast to use, the technique has made a recent comeback. The color is temporary and will wash out, but it works wonders because it won't run if it rains or snows.

There are many different brands available at drugstores and online and several shades are available. Color Wow Root Cover Up is one of our favorites. It's sort of like an eyeshadow for your roots, making it easy to apply with the brush that comes with it. 

Toothbrush or Mascara Wand

If you have a few gray hairs on your crown, but not enough to justify all-over hair color, you can simply use a toothbrush and a bottle of box hair color. For even fewer grays, a clean mascara wand works great.

Simply dip the brush into the dye and "brush" it onto your gray hairs. Follow the directions regarding how long to keep the dye on before you rinse it out.

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Applying Color With a Paintbrush

If you are going the DIY route, consider using a paintbrush to apply hair color. It can be far more effective than the nozzle that comes with box colors.

In her book, "Eva Scrivo on Beauty," New York City stylist Eva Scrivo recommends using a paint brush to jab the color into the roots of the hair. "Applying color with the tip of the nozzle does not have the same force or friction," she says. Plus, a brush allows you to more evenly distribute color.  

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Choosing the Best Color

For hair that is more than 50% gray, consider a lighter hair color for the sake of maintenance. A blonde shade is often a better choice than going dark, just because gray hair will blend in with lighter hair, whereas it will stand out against a darker shade. But, if you're up for frequent touch ups, a darker shade can definitely still be a good choice.

If you have less than 50% gray hair and naturally dark hair, try to stay as close to your natural color as possible. No more than two shades lighter or darker is a safe bet.

When making a decision between two shades, go with the lighter of the two. It's easier to go from light to dark than the other way around should you decide you don't like your new color. 

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Hair Shades to Avoid

Manhattan hairstylist Beth Minardi is over 60 and regularly colors her gray hair. She recommends that people avoid certain shades because they can actually make you look a little older.

“As I age, I’ve found that it’s important to stay away from black, ultra-golden blonde, or burgundy red. Those tones accent every line in the face,” she tells More Magazine.

Red hair can be absolutely gorgeous. It's best to stick with coppery reds, like Minardi's, because grays blend in a little better with those tones. 

Touch Ups

Minardi also camouflages her own grays using a special process that she shared with More magazine.

“I color my gray roots sepia-brown every two to three weeks and refresh the lengths with a demi-glaze," Minardi says. "Then, three or four times a year, I highlight and lowlight. Many colorists refresh faded color by applying the same color formula, roots to ends. But I find this damaging. If you are very gray, the roots need permanent dye, but the rest should just be refreshed with a demi-permanent color, which revives the tone but is easier on the hair."

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Highlighting to Cover Grays

Gray hair can wash out your skin color, but you can add dimension and contrast without a full dye job. If your hair is less than 25% gray, consider getting highlights at the salon. It's generally not something you want to tackle on your own.

Ask your colorist about adding highlights and a few lowlights scattered in rather than an all-over color. The variation in color camouflages gray nicely.

Highlights and lowlights will blend better with the silver and won't require as many touch-ups. All-over color in just one hue is bland, whereas a mix of shades can appear much more natural. Balayage is a great highlighting technique that many people prefer for a natural look as well.

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Coloring With Permanent Dye

While some stylists suggest applying a semi-permanent hair color over your hair to make it blend in better, Eva Scrivo disagrees. "Don't do it," she says. A semi-permanent dye cannot cover gray hair and may actually stain hair. Also, as the color fades, it may leave a yellow tint on gray hair.

Most colorists use permanent hair color for gray hair. It offers much better coverage than semi-permanent dyes.

If you're going the DIY route, try Clairol Nice 'N Easy Root Touch Up. It is a permanent dye that comes in a ton of shades, and it is relatively low in ammonia, which can damage hair.

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Timing Your Touch Ups

Coloring gray hair is an investment in both time and money. How often you need to touch up your color will depend on your hair type and color.

If you're 100% gray, it's best to color your hair every three to four weeks. If you are 50% gray, you can stretch it out to every five weeks. Roots will need to be touched up about every eight weeks or when needed.

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Loving Your Gray Hair

More and more people are deciding to let their gray hair go natural and the reasons vary. Many have gorgeous gray coloring, while others don't want the hassle and expense of covering up gray. Others simply decide that they want to embrace life as it develops, wrinkles, gray hair, and all.

Gray hair is beautiful and you can show it off with confidence. If you choose to go natural, paying attention to your makeup and the clothes you wear can really add to your style. Likewise, choosing a trendy pair of glasses is a great way to project a youthful attitude. Of course, you'll also want to care for your gray hair so it stays beautiful and healthy.

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