In June of 2011, scientists at New York University's Langone Medical Center created a flurry of excitement among the graying Boomer cohort with the announcement that they had succeeded in isolating a protein that is key to the pigmentation of hair. Yet while their research could point to a breakthrough down the road, as of now gray hair is right up there with death and taxes as a sure thing. Sooner or later, typically in our 30s and 40s -- or a bit beyond that for Asians and African-Americans -- the color-producing melanocytes in our hair follicles begin to dwindle. Eventually, they're gone altogether. Given that inescapable effect of aging, we have two choices: Either we can join the "amazing grays" who carry off a silver mane with aplomb or we can opt for dyeing our fading locks.
Here's what you need to know about starting or continuing to color your hair.
Can Hair Dye Cause Cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute, studies reporting on the risks of bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and leukemia as a result of using hair dye have yielded inconclusive results. Although certain potentially carcinogenic chemicals in hair dyes have been banned since the 1970s, some research suggests that the newer chemicals may be as bad as the old ones. One fact is certain, however: Would-be brunettes are subjected to greater amounts of those possibly harmful substances than are people who go for lighter shades. Not only that, but hairdressers and barbers are slightly more likely than the general population to get bladder cancer. Yet the bottom line, according to the NCI web site, is this: "Some studies have indicated that people who began using hair dyes before 1980 have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence for increased risks of other cancers from hair dye use is limited and conflicting."
DIY vs. a Professional Colorist
Home hair dye, whether permanent or temporary, has been a popular choice since the 1950s. Clairol, after two decades of selling their products only to beauty salons, launched the first one-step home hair color formula, Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath, with the enduring slogan, “Does she…or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Never mind that the hairdresser had nothing to do with the transformation. Somehow the ad campaign worked big time. Just six years after the debut, 70% of women were coloring their hair. Since then, a slew of competitors have come on the market and sales are still brisk. Women who swear by these products say they are easy to use and that the conditioners now included in the packages actually improve the heft and silkiness of their tresses. Still, you may be among those who wouldn't dare try this at home. If so, find yourself a good colorist and work the cost into your budget. You'll probably need an appointment every four to six weeks with in-between visits for root touch-ups, so plan accordingly. Tip: Most beauty experts agree that lighter hair is more flattering for older women than deeper shades.
Growing out the Gray
Maybe you've been coloring your hair but now you'd like to let the silver strands among the gold (or red, or brown, or black) take over. "Bottle blonds" can simply bleach and add a slight rinse while the new growth is coming in. But top hairdressers agree that stripping dark colors is virtually impossible. One possibility is to begin using temporary dye on the roots. If you also get a really short, chic cut – think Halle Berry – you should be able to stop using color fairly soon.
A final word: Any change to your hair color or style calls for revamping your make-up to complement your fresh look. Why not head for the beauty aisles of your favorite department store and let those eager representatives from various product lines give you free makeovers? You can buy their wares or you can copy their handiwork using affordable knock-offs from drug stores and chain stores. Now, get ready for the compliments!