Picture: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

What I learned about hair, makeup and myself by going grey

For years Kate Spicer coloured her hair. When she stopped, she suddenly learned there were some secrets to going grey.

In I Feel Bad About my Neck, by Nora Ephron – the great comedy chronicler of female angst – there’s an essay called ‘On Maintenance’ in which she says that hair dye “…is the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture”. The statement is interesting from the perspective of someone going grey.

Should I go grey?

For a long time I felt like Ephron. And so did my hairdressers. When it became clear I had two badger like stripes of white growing from my temples in my 30s I started asking them when I should go grey. Never, came the repeated response.

But it niggled. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be honest about who I was with me and with the world, it was the cost and time involved in maintaining the impression of youthful blonde, red, brown, and the fact that changes in my skin tone due to ageing meant my face never really matched my pigment rich hair.

So, in January 2020 my hair was dyed for the last time. Like many women, a global pandemic forced the call. I was going, or the more romantic term, ‘honouring’ grey and giving up that frantic mix of denial and fight that maintaining a young appearance involves.

Going grey doesn’t mean giving up

And that, you’d think, was The End. Except, it wasn’t. As the brown receded I learned that my hair colour still needed attention. This decision definitely wasn’t about giving up. In some ways, unless you’re ready to let things slide a bit – and I may still go full free-spirited wise old witch in the woods style, but not yet. I wanted to look as good as possible grey.

“Technically, you aren’t going grey, you are going white,” trichologist Sophie MacCorquodale of Salon Sloane says. “It’s only the juxtaposition with remaining dark hair that makes it look grey. Grey hair tends to be concentrated round your face, no one knows why. White hair is divine to look at, but the texture will change. Also, most water pipes have copper in them and so white hair can go a bit yellow.”

Shampoo to use on grey hair

So keep your hair clean. Grey hair can be very ‘matte’ as the professionals describe it and only gets, er, ‘matte-er’ as it accumulates dirt. Any ‘cool’ coloured shampoo or conditioner for blonde hair – think ash, violet or platinum – will brighten up greys.  (Avoid anything warm toned as it will make your hair look like you smoke 40 a day.)

I needed new haircare tips for grey hair

Hairstylist Kieran Tudor who also has a natural haircare brand called Centred, suggested I, “fit a water softener to your shower head – you’re in a hard water area – to avoid dullness due to limescale residue.” This ain’t gonna happen, I said, “OK, do a once a month apple cider vinegar rinse as this removes build up from hair. Try to keep it as natural as possible because residues from overly synthetic hair product will only add to dullness. And avoid sulphates in shampoos as this harsh detergent will dehydrate already extra porous grey hair.”

In shower fixes can only take you so far. Some people have all over sexy silver, or do they? To lift grey hair and give it a zing you need permanent solutions in salon. Most of these fixes don’t required regular visits like a colour will. So ask yourself, what’s my grey goal?

Do you need to colour grey hair?

I’ve yet to tinker with mine, other than an amateur dark streak I made with eyebrow dye. (I was going to a party and wanted my two horns on white to look a bit more dramatic. It kinda worked.)

Famous colourist Josh Wood explains. For sexy grey: “It all needs to look a bit accidental, bold, loose. By lightening a few strands with ‘microlights’, which are tiny strands of hair, it adds movement and softness where the grey can be perhaps stark and prominent. Just four small foils can have a great impact.

For chic grey, try ‘reverse balayage, with two colours blended elegantly through the hair like subtle lowlights, seeing threads of silver rather than blocks. but this will show in regrowth, which might defeat the practicalities of going grey in the first place.

For directional grey, have a cut with a bold sharp line, think Daphne Guiness [or Philippa Perry], and add strong slices of colour that look ‘by design’.”

What to do when you start to go grey

I have to say, now I’m all the way grey, the actual process of getting there was by far the grimmest part of the story. Half crackly pubic grey, half yellowy fading brown is a horrible look, on anyone. I’ve yet to see anyone reinvent grey growth in the same way black roots on beached blonde hair is edgy and cool.

Mercifully, there’s the upside to lockdowns. I was shielding my ugly regrowth from public view. For all other times, get a hat. Wood says, “You’ve got to get through the regrowth stage, there is no way of avoiding it, and once it’s grown out then you can really see what you’ve got.”

Make sure you’re working with someone who is really positive about what you want to do. For many years my colourists and cutters were adamant I should never go grey. It was only when I changed to one who wanted to go on this — without making it sound too bloody melodramatic — journey with me that it started to make sense.

Incredibly, my hair changed in texture as it grew out, and it was in a good way. Yes, my hair was grey, but it was a gorgeous texture. I didn’t realise all hair dye knackers your hair, even if you’re only going brown. Nice textured grey, I could live with.

Grey hair had a profound impact on me, it became far harder to hide hangovers and crappy sleep. It forced me to take care of myself better. It forced the loathsome term of ‘self care’ on me.

What vitamins does hair need?

MacCorquodale again: “Hair is a barometer of health. You can have all the treatments in the world but if diet or hormones are out of balance it will show in your hair. Hair needs a decent diet for vitamins B and C, iron and lysine especially. Essential fatty acids are crucial to the process of cell division that creates hair. Hormones have a huge impact. HRT is a highly effective hair treatment.”

I assumed blow dries would be a grey haired lady’s best friend, but actually they could be incredibly ageing if too set or structured. Hair spray seemed to make it crackle like kindling. What was far more crucial to invest in was a really good cut with a bit of volume and lively upward swoosh that I could loosely style myself. Tudor’s advice was, “Step out of the box with the style, go for a modern hair cut and keep the trims regular.”

How to wear your makeup with grey hair

The blow dry issue was compounded by not having a clue what to do about makeup. Framed by grey, I found my old make up unsettling. I stopped wearing it altogether for a while.

Frances Prescott is an experienced make up artist, and a proper grown up who doesn’t go for heavy make up away from TV lights or movie sets. She’s the antithesis of the Charlotte Tilbury aesthetic so beloved of women brought up on Kardashian-era heavy maquillage. She says there are dos…:

Get a simple skincare routine

“First, find a simple skincare routine that nurtures elasticity and healthy clean glowing skin – regular exfoliation will help with that. After moisturising wait a few moments so it has sunk into the skin. You need sheer products in softer colours. Start with bare minerals tinted complexion rescue, which gives a second skin finish. Use cream blushers on the apple of the cheek where you would naturally blush, and then blend it out and up; don’t use powder instead blot it with a tissue. Think pops of colour rather than a layered, over made-up look.

Use the right red lipstick

Reds are fantastic with grey hair but avoid blue toned ones as they drain colour from the face. To avoid feathering, cover the whole lip in a neutral lipliner (try Rimmel 90s Nude), then take it off and apply lipstick over the top.

Define your eyebrows

“A strong defined eyebrow will frame and lift. Rimmel has a good range of pencil and brush in one. Finally, great mascara and eyelash curlers.”

Makeup to avoid with grey hair

“No more heavy make up, you do not want a hard look. Forget layering and contouring techniques, and avoid powder like the plague – it will bring out the wrinkles more, ditto very iridescent or sparkly products. Forget neutrals, which will not add life to the face. Forget heavy black or matte products that will feel flat and draining rather than lifting. If you are wedded to your black eyeliner it’s fine, but just smudge and blend again and again so the line is soft or try brown, smoky green or a dark navy instead.”

The issue with the blow dries ran true for the makeup. She explains, “We associate the colour grey with dryness, anything that adds a hard, dry or fixed look to the skin – or indeed the hair – only increases the impression.”

This was the end. Surely?

Well, yes, but there’s one more thing. It’s a secret so don’t tell anyone.

What grey hair made me realise about my face

As time progressed I realised structural change in my face due to menopausal decline was getting me down way more than my grey hair, which I was liking more and more. So, I’ll admit that I had a small amount of filler put in my face, not to plump it, but to subtly lift it. The process took ten minutes, maybe less, and oh my God, it made such a difference.

Cosmetic doctor Joanna Christou explains why. “Collagen and elasticity declines from 25, but when we lose oestrogen then collagen drops off a cliff,” she says. “There are other changes: bone-density loss and fat-pad depletion, all of which adds up to impressions of tiredness and sagging. I can’t overemphasise that you can do a lot with sleep, diet, hydration and hormone replacement. And the rest can be fixed with small strategic cosmetic medical interventions: filler, Botox, Ultherapy.…”

What I’ve learned from going grey

Today, many interesting midlifers and beyond are ready to show their steel, not least the perfectly perfect Gwyneth Paltrow. I still look at images of a pre-grey me wistfully, and for some people my hair indicates a kind of post-sexuality. Grey is still fraught with crucial questions for feminists. Some might say this list is hardly graceful. But I said I was going grey, not that I was giving up. There is a huge difference.

Kate Spicer

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