It used to be that the first appearance of a few greys would mean decades of dye appointments every six weeks. But there’s a grey-volution happening with women like 30-year-old Georgina Lucas styling it out…
‘It looks wicked’ says Nick Latham at Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge Herseshons salon, assessing the state of my hair. It turns out, being asked to write this feature about embracing my greys is a serious ego boost. The friends whose opinion I canvas say they love it (they’re biased, I know), while every hairdresser tells me never to cover them – I’m blown away when legendary international hair colourist Josh Wood, call my whites ‘one in a million’.
I was in my teens when I found my first grey. The truth is I didn’t give it much more than a passing thought - at 16, white hairs had nothing to do with ageing. When I pointed them out to my mum she squinted into my dark brunette mane and laughed. ‘You can hardly see them darling’. Ever practical, she pointed out that my beloved grandfather had gone grey at 25, my dad was almost entirely white and she was heading that way too. Going grey was on my agenda and I felt fine with that.
In my early 20s, I developed a streak of white through my side parting - think Rogue from X-men (minus the cat-suit). It rarely troubled me. The odd person who spotted the snowy strands said they were cool, or asked if I bleached them. Any passing (and half-hearted) thoughts on dying were swiftly quashed by my mum, who dyed her own hair and deemed the up-keep ‘a nightmare’ and advised holding out as long as possible.
In my late 20s, the march of these scattered white hairs picked up to a light jog. A hairdresser finally convinced me, ‘covering these will warm up your face’. The reverse was true. Without any natural colour variation, the shade of espresso supposedly matching my original hair colour was unforgiving against my pale skin. I waited patiently through roots and regrowth, vowing I’d never cover them again.
I turned 30 last year with white hairs framing my face, and a wide icy streak running along my parting. People comment regularly - 99% of the time it’s positive. Last year I was in a client meeting discussing the pressures women feel under to look/dress a certain way (oh the irony). ‘I’m sorry’, said a colleague (dark coffee hair, immaculate bob, no trace of grey), ‘I’m really distracted by your hair.’ She paused, ‘It’s making me wish I’d been brave enough not to dye mine’.
Sarah Harris from Vogue
But what causes some of us to go grey early? ‘No definitive answer has been established about the exact gene responsible for greying’, says Glenn Lyons, Clinical Director at Philip Kingsley Trichology Clinic in London, but last year scientists identified gene IRF4, which regulates melanin. This so-called ‘grey gene’ is acknowledged to be hereditary - Mama take note, you’re turning me grey and not the other-way round. Aside from genetics, smoking, stress and Vitamin D deficiency may all speed up the process.
‘Greying is caused by a reduction of the pigment (melanin) cells (melanocytels) formed in the cortex of the hair,’ says Lyons. As the melanin levels lower to nothing, hair goes grey and then white. The frosty wings at my temples are a common first site for greys.
‘Fundamentally, grey hair is one of the first signs of age,’ says Wood explaining why hiding grey hairs is the norm. ‘It’s empowering that you can get rid of it. The cruel truth is people look at pigmented hair and think polished and put together - there is an (incorrect) association that a woman who has gone grey, has somehow let herself go.’ Men have it easier - a ‘silver fox’ is debonair. As my parents’ hair turned white, my siblings and I cajoled my mum into the colourists chair, barely giving my dad’s lid a glance.
But things are changing. In 2013, when Josh Wood sent grey-haired models down the runway at the Marc Jacobs show in New York, he started a grey revolution. This moment spelled change. Since then a roster of celebs - from RiRi to Cara D have faked all-over grey. At the spring/summer ’17 shows silvery tresses flooded the runways everywhere from Self Portrait to Alexander Wang. ‘Ash’, says Paul Windle, of London’s Windle & Moodie salon, ‘is the colour of choice - I see it as a wider shift in attitudes to age. Millennials are less linear than we were. Fascinated by age, they embrace individuality.’ He sees the visibility of grey amongst ‘the youth’ inspiring older women to accept their own colour.
Change is afoot at salon level, too, with a host of top colourists offering ways to welcome whitening - ‘embracing grey’ is rarely as simple as letting nature take its course. London salon Hari’s, suggests partial dying - ‘start leaving the front looking cool and silver and keep colouring the back, until you’re ready to go completely grey,’ says senior creative colourist Francesca Dixon.
Windle & Moodie offer camouflaging treatments. ‘Add some ash-blonde highlights, or a couple of blonde colours between the grey and brunette,’ they suggest, while Headmasters’ new campaign #maskingyourgreys takes a similar approach - a consultation first assesses skin/eyes/hair colour and then tailors colouring to the individual, and SmartBonds in the dye improve hair condition.
But without doubt the pioneer of celebrating grey is Josh Wood. None of his vocabulary implies hiding and he is vehemently against referring to his bespoke approach as ‘anti-aging.’ Instead, the addition of every colour he chooses is beautifying. ‘Anything multi-faceted looks great’ he says, ‘you have to add subtle highlights and lowlights, sometimes softening the tone of the hair to match the skin.’ An upcoming campaign with Redken, set to land in early 2018, will bring his expertise to a wider audience via a new range of colour products designed specifically for greys. After all, grey does require more love than pigmented hair. It has a frustrating tendency to go yellow. To counteract this, everyone I speak to recommends silver shampoo and conditioner. The wash leaves the greys brightened and sparklier, the streaks around my face look fresher and the rogue hairs along my parting catch the light, looking more like highlights. I’m sold. Frizziness, curliness and coarseness are other perils - Lyons recommends a pre-shampoo treatment like Philip Kingsley Elasticizer, £31 plus Preen Cream, £19.50 post blow-dry. A fellow white-streaked friend swears by Brazilian blow dries to tame stray greys.
Beautifully kept, a full head of white hair is the ultimate style statement, no matter what the wearer’s age. See Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Emmy Lou Harris, Christine Lagarde, Kristen Mcnameny, Carmen dell’Orefice - silvered women who exude elegance and poise. My personal inspirations are Matchesfashion.com founder Ruth Chapman, with her impeccable shoulder length style and Vogue fashion features director Sarah Harris, who, like me, started to go grey at 16. Sure, beauty and killer wardrobes help, but these women wear their greys with something else. Confidence. A friend of mine sums it up, ‘it’s cool, it’s so brave, there’s a conviction that’s enviable.’
I’m getting married in August. Amid the excitement and planning, a question lingered in my mind. Would I take my whites down the aisle? Now my mind is made up. They are staying, and what’s more, I’ll be sweeping my hair up in a chignon that shows them off. As Josh Wood says, ‘your hair is integral to your identity, it’s like a fingerprint.’ Mine comes with a side of white.
The golden rules of grey
- Regular trims keep follicles in tip top condition.
- Ensure the cost, time and energy it takes for colour up-keep works with your lifestyle and wallet.
- Smoothing treatments and coconut oil will tame wayward greys.
- Grey hair is more sensitive to sun so do wear a specialist SPF in bright light.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – Make moisturising masks your friends.
Now shop the best products for if you're going grey...
Top photograph by Gianandrea Traina