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How to Cover That Littttttle Bit of Gray Hair

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,
I’m a long time reader sometimes de-lurker. (I got hooked way back when you were in Washingtonian and the Smackdown was on Amalah on Wednesdays.) I have a fairly basic question about hair coloring. My hair is auburn now with a bit of gray mixed in, and that’s the problem. I’d like to get rid of the gray, but how do I do that while retaining the color and lowlights that I naturally have? Is this a color and highlight situation or just one of those options? I’ve done semi-permanent color (Paul Mitchell PM Shines ($45 for cut and color at the Paul Mitchell School in Tysons!), and it was nice, but didn’t do a terrific job of hiding the gray.
Thanks so much, and keep up the great work on Amalah and here!
Another Amy

Permanent highlights are the way to go! The only way to go! (Other than aging and going gray naturally and gracefully blah blah blah, whatever, the minute I spot a gray hair I’m coloring right the hell over that sucker, so you will get no judgment from me, missy.)
Semi-permanent color does NOT, as you found, cover gray very effectively. I think it’s best for when you want to experiment with color without commitment, but otherwise it’s a waste of money. *grumbling over the absolutely AWESOME dark blond lowlights I got at the salon a few months ago WITHOUT being told they were only semi-permanent, and now I’m left with only very blond highlights because I’ve had no time to go back and demand the same thing, only MAKE IT LAST THIS TIME, GOD*
A lot of the monochromatic at-home boxed dyes aren’t really great at covering gray either, although some of the darker blond shades work rather well. Auburn, however, is notoriously difficult to get right from at-home coloring. But regardless! Since you only have a little gray and don’t want to change any of your multi-tonal high- and lowlights at all, permanent (and professionally done) highlights are your best option.
If you don’t have a regular, trusted stylist, make sure when you book your appointment that you specifically mention you want highlights to cover gray hair — you want someone who knows what they’re doing, who will study your head and arrange the foils in the right distance/thickness/frequency to maximize gray coverage without adding a ton of unnecessary dye or leave you with anything “chunky” or “streaky” looking. My highlights and lowlights, for example, often involve two or three shades, and only a dozen or so actual hairs per foil. It’s deadly dull and time-consuming, and I’m fully aware of the inherent stupidness of paying good cash money to color my hair so IT LOOKS LIKE IT HASN’T BEEN COLORED, but I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my dishwater blond hair needs a little oomph. So I give it oomph. I am only human!
Will highlights cover up every single solitary gray hair on your head? Unless you go with full highlights and lowlights on every single solitary strand (which kind of defeats the purpose of retaining your natural tones), probably not. But they will cover most of them, and I’m super-partial to the natural, youthful look of highlights and lowlights over single-process color (which will also require much more upkeep and frequent touch-ups). You can always add more color at your next appointment, if you think too much gray was left uncolored.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • lolismum

    April 16, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Actually, I don’t agree. I think Amy’s suggestion is right if you have light hair, but off the mark if you have dark hair. Like the “Another Amy”, I have dark brown/auburn hair. Whether you get highlights or lowlights or single process dye does not change anything about how fast your hair will grow and how visible your gray hairs will be. Let’s face it, even you highlights will be much darker than any grey hair when your natural hair is dark. Hair grows at some basically fixed rate (1/2 inch every month). It will take about 4-6 weeks for the grays to be noticed no matter how many low lights you have. If you are going to find yourself back at the salon every 6 weeks or so, highlighting that often will be a bank breaker. High/low lights/ single dye choice is more about how your hair looks when it is freshly dyed, and does not change the rate of gray growths. But I do agree with Amy that you should at least try the permanent dyes. Just my two cents. (I have prematurely aging hair too. And I have tried every type of processing. And the time between one color job and when my grays became noticeable never changed.)

  • alaina

    April 16, 2009 at 11:40 am

    i, too, have dark hair that is prematurely graying. it is a medium brown, but i have been coloring it every 6-7 weeks for five years so I have no idea what the natural color is like.
    i, too, think that going to highlight route would be a bank breaker for me. my gray is sparse enough that i have styling tricks to hide it on my 6th week, but considerable enough that i cannot fathom how highlights would cover them any better. i would have to go nearly twice as long between dye jobs to get my money’s worth from my salon jobs if i went the highlighting route.
    also, my single color process still gives me lots of good depth of color. people don’t know that I color my hair, unless i tell them.

  • Melissa

    April 16, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I also do the single color process to cover my grey and found that it is more effective than highlights because of my dark hair. I too have been coloring grey for so long that I’m no longer entirely sure of my natural hair color other than dark brown. Maybe highlights is a better option for auburn, depending on how dark the auburn is. I have found though that I do not have the money to work the highlights as often as I need them to cover the grey. Single color still gives me depth and no one knows I do, which surprises me.

  • Stephanie

    April 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I agree that highlights do not work to cover gray on dark hair. My medium brown hair has been gradually getting grayer (and grayer) over the last two or three years, and I’ve tried everything—salon highlights, home highlight kits, salon permanent all-over color, home permanent all-over color, salon semi-permanent color, home semi-permanent color. I recently gave up on permanent color (salon or home kits) because I just couldn’t stand the line of un-dyed hair that showed up so quickly at my hairline and part. Like three weeks after coloring.
    So now I actually prefer semi-permanent color–no line! Just gradual fading. And a lot less damage, too. But my hair still needs coloring every 4 weeks or so. There’s just no win-win situation when it comes to gray hair, especially if you’re a redhead or a brunette.
    I wish I could be more positive, but gray hair just sucks.

  • Jillian

    April 16, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    I am also going gray way too young (in my opinion). I have the Stacey London silver stripe on one side of my head, but it’s now expanding. Just this past weekend I bought a box of hair dye at Target labled “Light Brown”. It turned my medium to light brown hair “auburn” if I want to give it a fancy name, but it might just be a tad too ORANGE-y to look natural. The grays did take a bit of the color, and blend overall with the lighter hair color. Now I have to worry about dark roots when my natural color comes in. But I’ve had professional permanent color that DOES NOT cover the gray either. The cost of professional color does not justify the results for my grays.

  • gemma

    April 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Thanks to both parents going grey in their twenties I said hello to my first grey hairs at 19. I can’t do much about the grey roots between salon visits, but my genius hairdresser now colours my roots one visit, then next time he does the roots and also drags the colour through the rest so I get subtle lowlights. And everyone thinks I have natural glossy brown hair 🙂

  • Karyn

    April 16, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I’ve had my hair colored twice, the first time it was too light. I was horrified when I saw the roots (timed perfectly to coincide my appearance on a closed circuit? televised class I was co-teaching) and so went back and had her re-color the hair but match my normal color. In my mind I can go longer between cut/color as it just looks like I’m starting to gray. That may not match reality though.

  • Tiffany

    April 17, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I’m 29, with dark brown hair and I found my first gray hair 10 years ago. It’s been a battle to keep the gray covered without breaking the bank. I think the secret is in what dye is used. My salon uses Swartzkopf color products, and they make all the difference. My natural tones (including red under-tones) shine through, and the gray is covered for a solid 6 weeks. We do a single process color every two months, really focusing on the roots to cover my resistant grays. The colors are so customizable, the grays are the only place you can even spot the re-growth! Look for a salon that uses Swartzkopf and use color-protecting products (I like Wella), and you’ll be a happy auburn sans the grays.

  • Carrie

    April 17, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Do you not have good hair dye in the US or what? I use semis right now, (bought from the shops, not done at the hairdresser as it’s so expensive) because I don’t have a huge amount of grey, and they work great. But then I do have dark hair and perhaps that’s easier? It can be difficult to match your colour, and I do find that even so-called ‘medium brown’ can be way too dark, but once I found one I liked it was great.
    I’m trying to stay away from permanent as long as I can, and I’ve been going grey since I was 19. Luckily my mother is a hairdresser and she had be covered for a while. Ha. My hair grows stupidly fast so it’s those coming through that are always the problem. Stupid hair.

  • Stacia

    March 21, 2013 at 9:55 am

    In the original response, you said “some of the darker blond shades work rather well.”  Can you tell me which?  I have light brown hair that has, over time, lightened as it got longer, so my roots are darker.  I really like the color now, but don’t like the grey.  I want to cover the grey – make them look blonder – without changing my hair color!