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Gray Gracefully—Here’s How to Transition Into Natural Gray Hair Using Highlights

Looking to embrace your grays? An expert dishes out tips on easing the transition into gray hair using highlights and how to care for your new hue at home.

If you’ve been committed to your root touch-up appointments for as long as you can remember, transitioning to gray hair may seem like a daunting life change—but it doesn’t have to be. Making the switch to highlighting gray hair has been steadily trending over the past few years, especially after Covid-related salon shutterings left some with little choice but to embrace their incoming silvers. Unsurprisingly, many realized just how unique and empowering the shimmering hue could be and decided to go along with it. However, that’s not to say the awkward transition phase is easy.

Going gray can be rewarding if you can stick it out, but seeing unsightly lines of demarcation between your natural new hair growth and your dyed strands can be a testament to your patience. We tapped Matrix global brand ambassador George Papanikolas to get the inside scoop on easing your color-treated hair into its natural grays using highlights for gray hair. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know.

Should you get highlights when going gray?

It all comes down to personal preference, but if you’re hesitant to abandon your signature shade, highlights work wonders to diffuse the contrast between your base shade and any incoming or existing gray color. Highlights for gray hair allow you to eventually segue into an all-over gray instead of diving headfirst into a significant mane changeup. Still, it’s worth noting that highlights can’t necessarily disguise gray hair. Instead, they help mesh and accentuate them.

“Highlights can be used as a tool to help camouflage gray, especially if your hair is dark blonde or lighter but will never give 100 percent coverage,” explains Papanikolas.

(Editor’s Tip: If you prefer to mask your grays completely, we recommend checking out our guide on permanent vs. semi-permanent hair color instead.)

Good hair day by @pati.rodrigz.

What color highlights go best with gray hair?

As Papanikolas mentions above, those with lighter hair will have an easier time transitioning into gray hair using highlights since variations of blonde are in a similar color family. Neutral shades like soft blonde, mushroom brown, light copper, and caramel blonde balayage are just a few shades that play well with blondes and grays.

As far as highlighting gray hair on dark brunettes, sometimes lowlights work better to cover grays, as adding highlights can overaccentuate their appearance. Lowlights help add depth to your color, which is sometimes needed to avoid washing out your skin. Opt for cool, ashy tones to emphasize grays, or choose golden and beige pigments to blend them.

Dark hair can also make a striking statement with the salt and pepper technique, AKA highlighting ‘pepper’ strands while painting out ‘salty’ ones using lowlights. Think of this method as a type of color correction: toning sharp silvers while simultaneously brightening up peppery ones can make your graying mane appear more uniform.

Remember: when our hair loses pigment, so too does our skin. A softer color than what was had before going gray may end up working best with your complexion. A trained colorist will customize your highlights for gray hair based on your current shade and skin tone, so we recommend having a thorough consultation before your color appointment to nail down your look.

In need of inspiration for your gray highlights? Check out our guide on the best colors for gray hair before hitting the salon.

How do salons transition to gray hair?

When highlighting gray hair, your colorist will work with you to determine your best transition method. This result will depend on the look you’re trying to achieve, what percentage of gray you already have, and how much coverage you desire.

An all-over color is best if you want to mask every gray hair on your head with a uniform shade. However, this may be counterproductive if your goal is to keep dyeing to a minimum and eventually lean into your au-naturel shade.

“Doing a base color gives 100 percent coverage and can be done every four to six weeks,” says the Matrix pro. “It’s a preferred way to eliminate gray on darker hair as too many highlights on dark hair can look harsh.”

On the contrary, highlighting gray hair may be a better option if you wish to blend your silvery strands and roots seamlessly; just be sure to avoid chunky highlights since they can backfire by creating a stark contrast. To do so, Papanikolas often relies on the babylight technique. As its name suggests, babylights are a type of highlight inspired by the sunkissed strands seen in children’s hair after a day in the sunshine. They’re subtle, fine, and natural-looking and can help fuse your existing dyed color with your current areas or scatterings of gray.

“Babylights that frame the face and crown help illuminate the hair and make the gray less noticeable,” says Papanikolas. They work especially well around the temples, an area that tends to gray more prominently.

Another gray blending trend making the rounds? Herringbone highlights. This diagonal foil placement covers grays at an angle to softly merge your grays into your overall hair design, making grays a luminous focal point instead of tucking them away.

How much upkeep does gray hair require?

“Typically, four to six-week touch-ups are required when doing gray coverage, but it really depends on how much you have, where it is most prominent, and your personal tolerance,” says Papanikolas. “Highlights are also only recommended every 10-12 weeks. Otherwise, doing it more often can be harsh on the hair.”

There may be a long period where more of your gray roots will be noticeable, but a skilled professional will ensure this new growth is still as soft and seamless as possible in-between appointments.

Good hair day by @marcelcurlsyouon.

How long does it take to fully transition to gray hair?

Depending on your hair growth pattern, genetics, lifestyle, and more going fully gray can take anywhere from six months to a year.

How to Care for Highlights in Gray Hair

“If you are using highlights to help minimize the gray, then violet-based shampoos like Matrix Total Results So Silver will help neutralize unwanted yellow tones and give the blonde [and gray] a more balanced tone,” says Papanikolas. This all goes back to the color wheel theory, which states that colors that lie opposite cancel each other out. Using a purple system will rid your gorgeous grays of brassy tones, so hair remains as bright as possible.

Decided to go the permanent coverage route?

Color-safe shampoo like Matrix Total Results Keep Me Vivid is mandatory when doing gray coverage as permanent color can quickly fade and oxidize,” says Papanikolas. “Clarifying shampoos can be harsh on color-treated hair and should be avoided.”

Additionally, using a heat protectant before picking up your blow dryer or curling wand can also help preserve that silver, gray, or platinum look your stylist worked so hard to create. Matrix’s Total Results Keep Me Vivid Color Velvetizer Protectant Balm protects against both hot tool heat and UV rays, two big color-sapping culprits.

The look of your hair isn’t the only thing that changes when you spot your first gray: expect texture changes, too. Gray hair is caused by the loss of natural pigment and melanin in your hair. Once the strand loses its color, it may become more coarse, dry, and wiry. Conditioning hair products are key to bringing moisture back to your mane and making it more manageable. One like Matrix’s Total Results Miracle Creator Repairing Nourishing Leave-In Conditioner boasts 20 hair-loving benefits, including adding moisture, reducing dryness, correcting roughness, and so much more.

Last but not least, your at-home routine accounts for more than just the salon-quality products you use. Experts also recommend washing color-treated hair in lukewarm water since hot temperatures increase the risk of premature fading.

Armed with these expert tips and tricks, we have no doubt you’ll sparkle in your new highlights for gray hair. So what are you waiting for?

Header image credits: @capellibymegs, @hair.dominatrix

Ready to get highlights for your gray hair? Shop for professional products to keep your shade healthy at home.

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