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How can I cover my gray hair?

By Ayren Jackson-Cannady, Real Simple
updated 8:56 AM EST, Fri November 11, 2011
Getting your gray hair colored by a professional is easier than trying to cover it yourself.
Getting your gray hair colored by a professional is easier than trying to cover it yourself.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 32 percent of women are under 30 when they find that first gray strand
  • Hair coloring products don't always help because gray hair is stiffer and drier
  • Salon colorists can pretreat grays with a peroxide solution before beginning the color process

(RealSimple.com) -- If gray hairs are sprouting long before you're ready to embrace them, you're not alone. According to a recent British survey, about 32 percent of women are under 30 when they find that first gray strand. A bottle of hair color isn't always enough to send it undercover: Gray hair is stiffer and drier, making it difficult to mask. (There's a reason it's called "stubborn.")

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Why Does Hair Go Gray?

As new hairs form and grow, pigment-producing cells called melanocytes inject them with color (a.k.a. melanin), turning them blond, brown, or red. Melanin production slows as we age; when it comes to a complete halt, we go entirely gray.

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For some people, it never totally stops. That's why a 40-year-old might have a full head of grays and an 80-year-old might have salt-and-pepper strands. Experts have mixed opinions about whether melanin production is determined solely by genes, but the majority agree that genetics plays a role.

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For the most part, everyone will get gray hair -- there will just be differences in when and how much. A little comfort: "Technically, your hair isn't turning gray," says Eric Spengler, the senior vice president of research and development at the hair-care company Living Proof.

"What we call 'gray hair' is just hair that lacks pigment. It's the contrast of that noncolored hair against the rest that gives it a clear, grayish cast." Eventually, science may offer a way to beat back that silver: Researchers at New York University Langone Medical Center, in New York City, have pinpointed the mechanism that can make black mice gray. But until there's some breakthrough that applies the discovery to humans' mousy grays, here are some lower-tech camouflage strategies.

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Home and Salon Solutions

If you have fewer grays than pigmented strands, coloring at home is the easiest, most inexpensive option. For the best results, Nikki Ferrara, a colorist at the Sally Hershberger salon in New York City, recommends using two boxes of permanent color: one that matches your natural color and one that's a shade darker.

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Apply the darker one from your roots down an inch or two, and continue with the lighter shade to your ends. Since grays are the most translucent (read: hardest to color) at the roots, you need a darker shade to cover them sufficiently. If you have more grays than pigmented strands, your best bet is to see a pro for bold, lasting color.

Salon colorists can pretreat grays with a peroxide solution before beginning the color process. This softens them, making the cuticles more receptive to absorbing color molecules. Whichever method you choose, you'll want to protect your color: Moisture loss and harsh detergents can accelerate fading, so look for products that are formulated to protect hair color. Here are three to try: Garnier Fructis Style UV Color Shield Anti-Humidity Hairspray, Infusium 23 Color Defender Shampoo, and Living Proof Restore Mask Treatment.

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