10 Ways to Find Your Best Hair Color at 50
Before you dye, consider the cost, maintenance and best shade for your complexion
by Lois Joy Johnson, AARP, October 24, 2019
En español | Coloring your hair at 50 isn't all about covering gray. We dye our hair to fatten up thin locks, amp up our skin's glow, soften the effect of wrinkles and make a so-so haircut rock. And as for gray, we hit the bleach to help grays grow in and to make them more luminous when they do. Hair color can make all the difference between looking delish or drab. But which color? That depends on your skin, hair health and wallet. Here's how to choose the best next hue for you.
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1. Check your skin for hair color success. Your complexion's not the one you had at 25, so why hold onto old hair color? If your skin has changed, is your blond, red, brown or gray ‘do doing you any good? You're far from alone. Even celebs have hair color drama and decisions. Look in the mirror without any makeup. If your hair color isn't adding warmth and radiance to your skin, it's wrong. Are you piling on blush and bronzer because you look washed out? Do you constantly think your foundation is the wrong shade? Do you need a bold lipstick to brighten up? You don't need more makeup, you need better hair color.
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2. Find your celeb doppelganger and do some research. Look for stars with a skin tone and eye color like yours and the hair color you'd love to have. How far is this dream shade from your own? Does it require a major change — like brown to blond or vice versa — or just a better version of what you have? Will the color require frequent salon appointments, special products and pampering? Or is it low maintenance with a little root or mix of colors? Are you loving just the color, or is it the color and hairstyle that make the look so appealing? Consider all.
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3. First, improve your hair color without actually changing it. Don't rush to go blond if you're not already. You can update any hair color simply by having a salon colorist (no DIY please!) add balayage highlights to whatever you have. This free-hand brush-on technique creates low-contrast, multitonal highlights that appear to melt into your base color. There's no obvious regrowth line, no dated “stripes,” and it's super low maintenance. Balayage peps up fading or dull color and lets grays comfortably mix in, too.
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4. If you're a lifelong brunette, consider a warmer or brighter shade. Very dark brown and black hair are hard to pull off at 50. A dark, inky hue can create a harsh contrast to mature skin and emphasize wrinkles, dryness and fatigue. Unless you have an amazingly fresh and even skin tone, you're better off trading licorice-black hair for a rich chocolate brown, coffee or chestnut to keep the depth but gain a complexion glow. Consider this: Upgrade mousy brown to a honey or amber shade, or dark brown to a glossy reddish brown.
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5. Keep the contrast. Your hair color should be at least two shades deeper, richer or brighter than your skin in order to avoid washing you out. This is why women who go blond or blonder at 50 often find themselves struggling with makeup. If your hair color matches your skin tone, you lose feature definition and become one blah shade. Keeping a darker base shade under brighter/lighter color, mixing in highlights and possibly lowlights, letting a little dark root show or choosing an ombré look with darker hair melting into lighter ends are all useful ways of getting around this when your chosen color is too monochromatic.
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6. Let gray be part of the plan if you're blond. It's not necessarily all or nothing when it comes to coloring your hair. Some women choose a low-contrast blond shade (that's low contrast between your gray and blond hair, not your skin and hair!) to allow grays to blend with colored strands in a flattering way. It allows you to go longer between color appointments, and the shade has a modern multitonal look. Gray or white hair benefits from cool and warm highlights, too, since not all gray comes in looking silvery gorgeous.
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7. A mix of brown and blond is the new normal. You don't even have to settle for a specific color category anymore. Multitonal hair in subtle or obvious variations looks contemporary and doesn't depend on a rigid schedule of touch-ups. Highlights are not just gold or a generic blond. They can be caramel, amber, honey, ash brown, butterscotch or cinnamon, auburn or mocha. The trick is that by mixing warm and cool shades like caramel and ash, it makes the blond-brown blend modern. Streaks of different widths and tones that start at random points away from the hairline and roots make a no grow-out line possible.
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8. Reddish hair is the blond alternative, but there's a catch. From bright copper and earthy auburn to rich cinnamon and redwood, red is a peppy solution for brown or naturally reddish hair that's dimmed with age. Red energizes mature skin like a dose of rosy cream blush as an all-over color or balayaged-in with highlights. It's surprisingly great on women with ruddy, reddish skin — even complexions with rosacea — though you'd probably think not. It makes pinky complexions look just-back-from-the-gym healthy. The too-good-too-be-true part is that red hair color fades quickly and requires masks, gloss treatments and sulfate-free shampoos to keep that vibrant look. But it is so worth it.
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9. Choose color you — and your hair — won't regret. It's not logical or even smart to select “fantasy hair” that'll eat up your budget and time. How much chemical baggage do you already have? If your hair is colored, chemically straightened or relaxed, thin, damaged or frequently heat-styled, choose a lower-maintenance color instead of a big-deal platinum or bright red. Is your hair healthy enough to duplicate the color you crave without frying, breaking or drying out? Is your hair long? You can't have it all. It's either extreme length or extreme color — you choose. Celebs who have double process and highlights tend to keep a consistent style that's short to medium for that reason. Those with long hair just upgrade their original color.
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10. Go slow. Hair color is easy to do, hard to undo. So, the old hair color rules are out the window. No one cares anymore if you dye or not. Blond is cool, but so is gray. You don't have to worry about your hair color looking “born this way.” Perhaps it's time to let go of foil highlights, one-shade color and your roots hang-up, and get more dramatic with a fiery red or sunny blond. However, it's easy to get seduced by a major color change when we go through another life change — when we gain or lose weight, get divorced or start dating again, begin a new job or move to a new place, celebrate a major birthday or achievement. Go slow: You can always amp up the color more later.
For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Makeup Wakeup: Revitalizing Your Look at Any Age by Lois Joy Johnson and Sandy Linter.