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Hair Color > Articles > The Big Cover Up
8 Ways To Do Away With Gray

By Kate Hahn

As a colorist, you're a lot like a dirty politician or a not-so-ethical CEO. You spend each day working on a big cover up. But the secret is hard to maintain. And the evidence against you just keeps growing. Okay, your efforts to conceal gray hair aren't as serious as backroom deals or creative accounting. But to your customers, even a streak of silver can be scandalous. Here are eight ways you can keep the lid on the fact that a client is 75 to 100% gray.

Another Dimension: "With heavy gray, if you formulate with just one color, hair looks gutless and flat," says LINDA YODICE, artistic director, JOHN PAUL MITCHELL SYSTEMS. For a more sparkling look, Yodice turns to a method she calls "Single Process/Three Dimension." Using a foil overlay to isolate areas of the head, she applies three different colors to hair, and allows them to process simultaneously. "It's great if your target color is blonde, because when you are working with a level 8, the dimension can be really limited and hair can end up looking unnatural," she says. "Add a level 6 and 7 too, and you get a more believable look." Another option for creating a realistic blonde is to keep all three colors on the same level, but use both warm and cool shades.

Play the Part: "With a gray client who goes brunette, one of the most difficult things to deal with is the hard line of re-growth at the part," says KRIS SORBIE, global artistic director, REDKEN. "Unless she comes in every two weeks, this line is very obvious. It creates the optical illusion of a widening part - so it looks as if she's losing her hair!" Sorbie recommends techniques that prevent the "alopecia effect," and allow customers to go longer between visits. One fix is to introduce highlights that break up the re-growth line. Another is to use a translucent color product like Redken Color Fusion, rather than an opaque one. Place it on the non-pigmented areas only for gray coverage that doesn't completely obliterate hair's natural dimension. When clients are completely white, the best choice is often to leave the deeper shades of brown behind for good, and take your color formula up a level or two.

Deep Thoughts: To get the exact color a gray client wants, you often have to mix a formula that is deeper than the intended shade. "When coloring hair that is over 60% gray, if your target is a level 5, use a level 4 in your formula," says FABIO SEMENTILLI, NAHA Haircolorist of the Year, 2004. This ensures that even extremely resistant tresses accept color, and that you are not left with lighter ends. For un-blah browns, Sementilli mixes the desired shade, and then adds an accent like cinnamon, russet, or gold. Yodice has similar "deep" advice when your target shade is blonde. "You often have to formulate deeper on the first visit - one-half level to one level lower," she says. This is because blonde formulas don't deposit as much pigment as other shades. This lack of dye load can lead to ultra-fast fading after the initial gray-coverage session. "It buys you an extra couple of weeks of lasting color," says Yodice.

Hairline Difference: "The hairline area tends to go darker when you are covering gray," says Yodice. This is because the hairline is one of the first places to lose natural color, leaving it with a particularly high concentration of non-pigmented strands. To avoid an inky ring around the face, Yodice mixes a separate formula to use on the hairline. "It should be either one-half level or one level lighter than the one you are using on the rest of the head," she says. Adding highlights is another way to make color around the hairline look more natural. But keep any streaks on the skinny side. "The closer the highlights are to the hairline, the finer the weave should be," says Sementilli. "It just looks more realistic." He opts for super-thin highlights he's nicknamed "millis."

"N" Joy: "When taking a gray client to a warm red shade, you have to remember that gray hair lacks pigment," says Sorbie. "To get the results you want, you have to build a background color into the hair. This means adding brown to the formula." If you leave it out, clients can end up looking like Lucille Ball or Ronald McDonald, so Sorbie often formulates her reds with a bit of Color Fusion NN. Yodice uses a similar approach. If her target is a level 6 warm red, she uses Paul Mitchell The Color, 1 oz. 6RO with 1/2-oz. 7N. "Because the N is a lighter level, it won't add too much brown," she says. "You get the foundation you need, but color won't look dull." For the midshaft and ends, she deepens the formula a bit to 6RO and 6N. Yodice adds that gold can also work as a foundation shade.

Thin to Win: "The size of your sections is so important," says Sementilli. "They have to be so thin that you can see through them. This gives the product a chance to penetrate the hair shaft." Sorbie recommends taking sections one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. "You should be able to read newspaper print through them," she says. This is especially important with gray hair, which can already be resistant to color. But just because sections are small doesn't mean you can skimp on your product. "Make sure you have enough on the roots," says Sorbie. And if you find you have a little extra in your bowl, resist the urge to brush it onto brows. "Dark brows on an older person can look harsh, and actually add years," says Sorbie.

Do Process: "For the best gray coverage, you can't let your processing time be dictated by the salon appointment book," says Sementilli. "Most manufacturers call for 45 minutes of processing to cover gray. But some salons try to do it in 30 minutes - and many grays need almost 60 minutes." To give extremely resistant hair a kick-start to accept color, Sementilli starts by softening it. This can be done on the re-growth only, or the whole head. He applies 20-volume peroxide, adding a little water to it if necessary, and leaves it on for ten minutes. "This opens the cuticle, and gives it a rougher edge, so color goes in easier," he says.

Develop Talent: "In natural brunettes, the texture can make hair more resistant to coverage," says Yodice. When recreating a dark-haired client's natural shade, Yodice raises the volume of her developer to break down the hair's resistance. "But this means we also drop the color level," she says. For example, if the target is a level 5 light brown, she uses a 30-volume developer and lowers the formula to a level 4.5. "This works with our line because it is so low-ammonia," says Yodice, "I don't think you can do it with every color system. But the lesson here is that whatever line you use, there are tricks you can develop to help cover gray. You just have to spend time getting to know your products."

Always finish a gray coverage service with a top coat that will help protect it from fading. And make sure clients walk out the door with home care products like Redken Color Extend or Paul Mitchell Color Protect. "The gray client is one of the most precious in the salon," says Sorbie. So do everything you can to make sure she comes back.

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