How to Cover Stubborn Gray Hair (And Make it Last)

You may have felt a few different emotions upon discovering your first few grays. Perhaps you were accepting, or maybe you had a moment of panic as though these new strands signified you were getting older. Aging is a privilege and graying hair is a beautiful, natural process, and while more people are choosing to embrace their silver strands now more than ever before, if you're in the camp of wanting to hide them, that's okay too, and there are methods you can use to cover them up (if that’s the look you prefer).

We spoke to Jennifer Sarchet to learn more about the best ways to cover stubborn gray hair. Since the cost of frequenting a salon for color upkeep isn’t always feasible for everyone, we asked Sarchet to shed some light on how to hide gray hairs at home. While she still recommends consulting a colorist at a salon because they have a deep understanding of the chemical makeup of hair and will be able to deliver results more accurately than anything you can attempt at home, there are certainly ways that you can dye the grays yourself and get a great and natural-looking result. For Sarchet’s tips on how to disguise stubborn grey hairs, read on.

Meet the Expert

Jennifer Sarchet is a master colorist and educator at Spoke & Weal. She is based out of the salon's Flatiron location in NYC.

Identify Your Commitment Level

“The thing with gray hair is that there are ways to disguise it, but if you don’t want to see it at all and you want to [completely] cover it, you have to do permanent color—and that’s a commitment,” Sarchet says. “It takes time and it’s a process to cover the grays in that way by lifting the color.” In this way you’re also more limited if you decide to stop covering the grays because you’ll have to deal with different tones throughout your hair (for example the color at the end of your hair will be different from the color in the middle of your hair or at the roots) and if you stop that process of permanent color it can present some issues with color consistency down the road.

“If someone doesn’t want to deal with the time and commitment of lifting their hair, I’d recommend semi-permanent color. It has no ammonia in it so it doesn’t cover grey, but rather blends grey so it will almost stain the color,” Sarchet says. “This is great because there’s no commitment and it fades off, versus growing it out and those greys will pick up that tone that you’re using and they can end up looking like a highlight sometimes, which I think is really cool.”

Sarchet explains that balayage or highlights are also a great way to distract the eye from greys because the eye will be drawn to places where you create a reflection or light and that is another way to blend the grays.

Prepare Your Hair for Color

Sarchet says that there are ways that people can prepare their hair to better absorb color and that she has started educating her clients on shower filters because of all of the minerals in the water and how they can affect your hair.

“Minerals are in the water pretty much everywhere now and the way minerals affect hair in the water here in New York City is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It actually will stop the color from processing the right way because it slows down the bleaching process,” she says. Shower filters will help reduce the minerals in the water using a process similar to how a Brita filter removes impurities from tap water. Sarchet also recommends using apple cider vinegar because it will help restore the pH level of the scalp without stripping hair.

Choose Your Preferred Product

“If you’re going to do color yourself at home, I’d definitely recommend something semi-permanent,” Sarchet says. “I wouldn’t recommend using a permanent box dye because you can’t predict how the results will turn out and matching it at a salon will be difficult because of the difference in quality.”

Try seeking out a non-permanent color option and choose from application methods such as a spray, touch applicator, or powder.

The length that these products will last on your hair ranges from washing out during your next shampoo to a few weeks. Whether you’re focusing on touching up your roots or adding a bit more color throughout your hair, you can test out these different options and find what will that work best for you.

If you prefer to use an applicator, Garnier's Express Retouch ($10) is a perfect option. L'oreal's Magic Root Cover Up ($11) makes it super simple to cover gray roots as it comes in a spray. And if a powder sounds more like your thing, try Madison Reed's Root Touch Up ($30)

Turn on the Lights

This may seem like an obvious one, but your dimly-lit, moody bathroom lighting that is perfect for a bubble bath at the end of a long day is no place to color your hair. Turn up the lights all the way and open the curtains if there is a window in your bathroom. Color can look different in artificial and natural light, so be sure to give yourself access to both as you prepare to place color on your hair. When you’re done you can also take a selfie in both types of light to get a better idea of how the color turned out.

Practice Your Application Technique

Whether you’ll be using a spray or a brush applicator, it is well worth your time to make sure that you do a test run of the product to see how it will apply. Test out your ability to target your greys on a paper towel first. Here’s your chance to make adjustments if the product comes out too drippy or see what the opacity of the color actually is. When you actually go to place the color on your hair, you’ll be thankful you took the time to test.

Perform a Patch Test

As Sarchet points out, at-home color results vary more than salon-quality results, so start out small when you begin to apply your color to cover the greys. And remember, color is often more visible once it dries so if you need to start out with one layer of product it could be worth it to wait and then check in after 24 hours to see if you have to go back in for round two of color.

Part Your Hair With Care

To make sure that you’re getting an even amount of coverage where you need it the most, be sure to take your time when you’re parting your hair.

Use a rattail comb to get the most precise part and ensure that you’ll be able to get the color all the way at the root and that it’ll be distributed evenly throughout your hair.

To keep uncolored sections of hair out of the way when you’re not working on them, try using large banana clips.

Protect the Surfaces in Your Bathroom

Even the steadiest hands and the most reliable products could potentially run awry, so make sure to cover your counters and floors with paper towel or newspaper to ensure that you won’t stain anything. You can even order a stylist’s cape from Amazon and pretend that you’re in a salon to protect your clothes from the color. If not, wrap a towel around your shoulders and have gloves on hand so that the color doesn’t get onto your hands.

Arrange Your Tools

Lay out your tools in a place where you can easily pick them up. Be sure to also keep a handheld mirror nearby so you can check your progress in hard-to- see areas like the nape of your neck and the back of your hair. Place a towel underneath products like brushes so they don’t roll away on your countertop.

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