How to Embrace Your Gray Hair with Highlights

Whether you're fully transitioning to gray hair or pursuing an ombre gray hair look, this writer's journey into embracing the silver will help you feel at peace with — and even love — this change.

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It's one thing to say you're a fan of aging gracefully, it's another thing to actually figure out how to be an emblem of graceful aging yourself. Especially when you've started going gray by your thirtieth birthday, and you've spent a good decade-plus trying to conceal this fact from the world.

I have my father to thank for the jet black hair he passed on to me, as well as his genetic disposition to going gray way too early. Looking at family photos from my childhood, I can see he was starting to lighten up by the time he hit 30. I still had a full head of dark hair at that age — but only because I spent an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom mirror plucking out the inconvenient silver threads. I was 32 when the grays became too numerous to keep up with via tweezer and started visiting the salon for single processing treatments. My appointments became more frequent, and by my late thirties, I told myself that I was on a still-respectable every-eight-week schedule — but that was only when I didn't have a job interview or friend's wedding or anything that justified rushing back into the chair.

One of my emergency appointments happened to be on a day when my regular stylist was not working, so I ended up in the chair of a woman named Christine Camille Sanchez-Ressy. Before she went to the back of the salon to mix my regular formula, she examined my roots and asked if I'd ever considered bringing the silver into my look.

"You're about fifty percent gray," she informed me, much to my horror, "and I think I see a beautiful tone under there." I told her I'd give it some thought, and avoided the salon for the next year for fear of running into the woman who knew the scary truth. Not ready to face the facts myself, I cheated on my beloved salon with lunchtime visits to a (frankly terrible) alternative that was across the street from my former office.

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Nina Subin / Jenny Carchman / Lauren Mechling

All the while, though, Sanchez-Ressy's words stuck with me. She was right. There was no question about it: I needed to do something different. Thanks to the high contrast between my dark hair and pesky root line, I was starting to look like a witch. At night in bed, I would find myself scrolling through Instagram, looking for pictures of women who were braver than I was, rocking gray hair highlights or gray ombre hair. Before long, almost all of my suggested posts were tagged #silverfox, #freethesilver, #goinggraygracefully, or #grombre. Most of the grayfluencers were women I'd never heard of, which makes a certain sense given how slow our social norms are to adapt. Leading men like George Clooney, Bard Pitt, Hugh Grant and can let their gray locks show and only present as more distinguished, but there's an unspoken line that women of a certain age are simply not to cross. I suppose it's possible that Rashida Jones, Angelina Jolie, Naomi Campbell, and the rest of their cohort all possess magic genes that keep their hair looking schoolgirl-fresh past their childbearing years. But more likely, they're hearing the same voices that perpetually told me to cover up my gray hair. Little by little, though, some brave souls are embracing their natural roots and transitioning to gray hair with intention — a trend that has gained traction, thanks to the pandemic.

"COVID made it difficult to get to the salon, and as a result we saw some celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston rocking their gray hair in late 2020, paving the way for our clients to feel confident embracing their grays," says Kate Reid, the design and education director of hair care company Kevin Murphy.

This reminded me of a few other proudly silver icons, including the likes of Jane Fonda, Andie MacDowell, and Sharon Osborne, all of whom have one thing in common: Hairstylist Jack Martin, whose Tustin, California salon is a Mecca for women ready to make the transition, expense and time be damned (a stint in his chair tends to take an entire day). His Instagram account is a bounty of women who he ushered from drably graying to gorgeously galactic, more Norse goddess than the hue-depleted tragedy that I felt I was becoming. As Martin shares in the captions of his social posts, his technique for this gray ombre hair look involves stripping off the old dye, and re-painting the entire head of hair with bleach — which he paints in stripes of color and toner, in order to give the high-contrast effect of silver streaks — all designed to match the client's natural root pattern. He vanquishes the telltale horizontal line where the last color job and the natural growth sit against each other. It's a feat of troupe l'oeil artistry that, in theory, could help you stay away from the salon for as long as you'd like. (Related: How to Cut Your Hair at Home When an Appointment Isn't In the Cards)

But never setting foot inside the salon again wasn't my goal. I love and missed Sara June, the Brooklyn jewel box that I used to frequent and where I could count on running into local writers and moms. (Plus: They serve wine.) I just wanted to patronize it on my own, slightly liberated terms. So eleven months into the pandemic, after various failed experiments in embracing my DNA — at first I did nothing, which was a horror show (I really was half gray, at least); then I tried switching to a light brown shade that might accommodate my roots more forgivingly, but whose brassiness only made me look more like Garfield the cat — I reached out to Sanchez-Ressy, the stylist who'd dared to offer to help me once upon a time. I told her I needed her help more than ever. I was sick of suggesting phone rather than video. I was over positioning my face three inches away from the computer on every Zoom call in order to crop out everything north of my eyebrows.

I wasn't sure Sanchez-Ressy would remember me after all this time. But not only did she know exactly who I was, but it was almost as if she had been expecting my message. She asked me to send her selfies so she could brainstorm solutions. We emailed back and forth for a week. I told her I didn't know how to describe exactly what I envisioned — gray ombre hair, gray hair highlights, gray tie-dye? I just didn't want to keep being embarrassed by my roots. "I want to be radiant and pretty," I told her. It was up to her to figure out how. I did not envy the task.

When the fateful day came and I showed up, Sanchez-Ressy opened the door, buzzing with energy. She told me she'd been up since 4:30 a.m. researching older pictures of me on the internet and plotting out my transformation. "This is so fun for me!" she said and gave me a run-down of what she had in mind: Rather than a Jack Martin-style reset, which would involve hours upon hours of stripping and bleaching, and result in a dramatic black and white composition, she wanted something softer and more blended. She would paint in a few highlights from crown to tip, following the patterns of my grays, "so it's less horizontal than vertical, and it looks cohesive," she told me. "And then we'll work in lowlights to offset the brassy tones." I liked the sound of this.

As she got to work, we discussed other ways somebody in my hair-color multiverse might proceed. She said a semi-permanent color rinse would subdue the grays without totally hiding them, and if I was feeling really bold I could move down to a purple gloss, which would simply tame and even out the tone of the grays. "Most people think grays are thicker because they're coarse, but in fact, they're thinner and more delicate," she said. "The reason they behave the way they do is they don't have melanin's protective coating." Melanin, the complex polymer that determines the color of our skin, is also behind our natural hair color. Darker hair has more melanin, and only absolutely white hair has none. The body produces less and less over time, and the absence of it is believed to lead to hair breakage and a lack of shine, which explains why gray hair can look so drab. (Related: The 9 Best Purple Shampoos to Cut Down On Brassiness)

Working with foils, Sanchez-Ressy divided my hair into itty bitty sections, following the natural coloring, and alternating between a dark brown dye and bleach mixed with salon-grade Olaplex, a bond multiplier that limits damage. She ran the dark formula through the previously colored sections on the bottom two thirds of my hair, in order to even out the orange tinge that had accrued since my last coloring. "This is part science, part art, and part fingers crossed," she said, leaving me to sit and let the chemicals do their magic. I was more than a little nervous.

After several rounds of toning and rinsing, it was time to dry me for the big reveal. The beauty was evident well before she'd put down the blowdryer. No more Garfield orange. More astonishingly, the silvers that used to tarnish the crown of my head now threaded throughout like ultra-fine ribbons of Christmas tinsel. The highlights almost read as wintry blonde, and the allover effect was rich and intentional. Sanchez-Ressy stood speechless. "You just look… pretty."

I texted a selfie (okay, a few selfies) to my inner circle before I made it home (and I only live three blocks away). "Do I look like I co-own an art gallery or what?" I asked my friends. "It's gorgeous," several of them confirmed. "You look like somebody I'd go to for career advice," one corporate badass shot back. When I walked into the door of my apartment, my husband looked confused. "I thought it was going to be drastic, but you just look like you came from the salon." He had to come closer to see how there was a new silver lining.

I only liked what I saw more and more over the next few days. I also liked thinking about my new salon routine: Now that roots weren't going to be a nuisance — or even a thingSanchez-Ressy and I planned to meet up for quarterly appointments. So long as I was good about deep conditioning, I could return every three months or so for a touch up. We would adjust the light-to-dark ratio as we went along. (Related: How to Refresh Faded Hair Color at Home)

A week into my new look, when a woman — a beauty industry mogul, no less — reached out to ask if I'd be up for a call to discuss a potential work project, I surprised myself and suggested we do it by Zoom.

The Care and Feeding of Grays

If you've been thinking about transitioning to gray hair or already have, these products can help keep your beautiful new silverware sparkling and soft between salon visits — I swear by them all. They'll help increase moisture and prevent breakage, keeping bleached, highlighted, and melanin-depleted grays looking glorious.

Briogeo Mega Moisture Superfood Mask

A protein-, silicone-, paraben-free deep-conditioning treatment that is packed with kiwi, spinach, avocado, chia seeds, and cocoa seed butter. Think of it as a moisture-locking smoothie for your hair. (Related: The Best DIY Hair Masks to Treat Dry, Brittle Strands)

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Sephora

Buy It: Briogeo Mega Moisture Superfood Mask, $36, sephora.com

Kérastase Paris Blond Absolu Le Bain Cicaextreme

Formulated for ultra-bleached hair, this creamy shampoo is formulated to fortify the fibers of processed hair keep the bleached bits light and just right.

kerastase-blond-absolu-masque
Sephora

Buy It: Kérastase Paris Blond Absolu Le Bain Cicaextreme Masque, $62, sephora.com

Bread Beauty Hair Mask

Lightweight but powerful, this Vitamin C-packed mask works to keep your hair looking buttery, not frazzled, and contains starflower oil (aka borage oil) which protects against breakage.

bread-hair-mask-deep-conditioner
Sephora

Buy It: Bread Beauty Hair Mask, $28, sephora.com

Kevin Murphy Cool Angel Shine Treatment

Formulated to be used like conditioner, this after-shampooing shine treatment contains pigments to preserve smoky tones and keep orange-yellow warmth at bay.

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Amazon

Buy It: Kevin Murphy Cool Angel Shine Treatment, $32, amazon.com

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