Gray Hair and Highlights

Older woman with highlighted hair
Photo: Zdenka Darula/Shutterstock
Q: I have very fine medium brown shoulder length hair and I have never had my hair colored until recently. About 9 months ago I was noticing a small amount of gray hair, and it bothered me so I was advised to get highlights since I wasn't ready to start the commitment of regular coloring. I have gotten my hair highlighted three times at this point (every 3 months; last time approx 1.5 months ago) whereby only the top layer of my hair has been highlighted. I asked for very subtle golden highlights, but what I have now has seemed to get progressively lighter over time.
I never really noticed how light it actually got until I recently saw a picture of my self. I think the tan I had in the summer really skewed my view of how light it had become and now that the summer is over, I really don't like it. Despite only having the top layer highlighted, I no longer look like a brunette, rather a more Calista Flockhart light brown/dark blonde. Additionally, the highlights never really seemed to cover the little gray that I have.
I would like to get the top layer of my hair (the part that is highlighted) back in sync with my natural color, but I am not sure what my options are. I don't view growing them out as an option since my gray will go uncovered. I thought lowlights might be an option, but surmised that it may turn out too multi-tonal for my conservative taste. I also didn't know whether it could be re-highlighted such that the blonde highlights match my natural medium brown color exactly or whether I needed to get my whole head colored...
This is all new to me. I also have major concerns about damaging my hair as well. My hair is so fine it tends to damage very, very easily - more so than most. Additionally, given the concerns I have about hair damage, I have even more concerns about how I address the increasing number of gray hairs on my head going forward.
I was hoping you might be able to provide some insight on my full range of options.

A: Well, I can understand the “theory” behind the use of highlighting the hair to mask gray hair growth, but I wouldn’t have suggested it as an alternative to someone who didn’t want to make a commitment to regular coloring. Add in the fine texture of your hair and susceptibility to damage and there’s a strong argument against highlighting, given the comparative harshness of the process.
You must remember that any color process that lightens the hair does so by using a chemical process to disperse color molecules found in the hair shaft. This dispersal of color molecules also results in the destruction of some of the structure in the hair shaft, leaving it weaker and more damaged depending on the amount of lightening done and thus the amount of color molecules dispersed.
In order to get your hair’s differing colors back in sync with each other, I can suggest a few ideas. First is to use a temporary color rinse, which would be applied to the hair following each shampoo and conditioning to blend the colors back to a common medium. The temporary color will last only until the next shampoo and in most cases doesn’t penetrate the hair shaft (although if your hair is damaged from the bleaching of the highlights, some staining may occur).
The second option is to use a semi-permanent or demi-permanent hair color, which will last for an average of 6-12 shampoos and be gradually washed out over this period. This method is as safe as temporary color in its gentleness to the hair, but offers the convenience of a longer-lasting effect. Once again, if your highlighting has caused damage to the hair, your results may be more or less long-lasting than the norm due to increased porosity of your hair.
Finally, there’s permanent hair color, which will be needed about as often as your highlighting service after the initial application (depending on the amount of gray in your hair). In this case, I am referring to deposit-only hair color, which offers no lightening of the hair’s current color. Most permanent color services need to be retouched every 6-8 weeks.
No matter which type of hair color you choose to use, I recommend you select a hair color that is a couple of shades lighter than your natural color, but still darker than the current highlighted color. Once the highlighted hair has grown out and you are dealing only with the gray in your hair (and even before if your hair’s level of gray increases rapidly) you can refer to the information we have on gray hair coverage to help you choose a color shade.