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10 Ways to Improve Your Hair Color

The right hue and shampoo can make all the difference

Hair color at 50 is always a work in progress. It never looks exactly the same month to month, and it never will. That's because everything (and I mean everything) affects it — from your shampoo and blow-dryer to your hairstyle and the formula your colorist is using. Whether your hair is gloriously gray, bold brunette, racy red or blazing blonde shimmering with highlights, it can turn boring, brassy or blah in a heartbeat — and chances are, it will. Here are 10 ways to keep your hair color going and glowing.

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(Left to right) Jennifer Lopez, Vanessa Williams and Jennifer Aniston
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1. Go bronde

Want to wake up drab and dingy brown hair fast? Going blonde-ish (as opposed to blonde) is one way to get a sun-kissed effect without actually doing a total color change. This is called bronde. A salon colorist subtly blends caramel, butterscotch or honey highlights between your brown and gray strands for a soft multicolor, multidimensional effect that looks natural and way more modern than those chunky ‘90s streaks. Make sure your colorist keeps the lights warm — not ashy — and on the low-contrast side (say you don't want high-contrast stripes!). You won't be running to the salon for a touch-up every four weeks. Bronde is a low-maintenance choice.

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2. Try balayage or ombre highlights

Women 50-plus who prefer long hair often face a dilemma: How do you hold on to the length, compensate for thinning and color your hair without adding damage or going broke? Ombre and balayage are two great highlighting solutions. Ombre hair is darker at the roots and gradually lightens on its way down the hair shaft — like a sunset. In balayage, which originates from the French term “to sweep,” the colorist freehand brushes on streaks of color to create natural-looking highlights. You can ask for balayage just around the face for an even more minimalist approach. Both techniques avoid the roots — so regrowth is a nonissue (touch-ups only every three or four months) — and give the hair a thicker look and texture, thanks to the multitone effect and physical bulk that color adds to the hair.

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(Left to right) Bo Derek, Kris Jenner and Cate Blanchett
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3. Make hair TLC a priority

You can get hair that colorists call “fried and dyed” back on track and prevent new damage. Consistent twice-weekly deep-conditioning masks and a low- or no-heat plan (see tip No. 9) can pave the way back to stronger hair that feels like hair and not cotton candy! First of all, always do a treatment two days before coloring damaged, porous hair to allow new color to “take and hold.” Hair color requires chemicals, so if you are a “double process” blonde (your own color has been stripped out and new color has been deposited in its place), use permanent box color to hide gray (often a mix of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia) or get highlights (yes, highlights are bleach), then get serious about pampering and consider a cut to remove some of the damage for an even quicker fix — and to prevent it from recurring.

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4. Define your brows

This may sound odd, but when you make up your brows your hair color looks a lot better. Even the greatest hair color can wash out your face without brow makeup. But don't go too dark. Brows should complement hair color — not match it. Subtly fill and extend brows with a cool taupe, ash blonde or gray or charcoal brow pencil. They're more authentic and blend in more easily with brow hairs than warm, reddish brown shades, which tend to look fake — even with red or golden hair. This just may be all you need.

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5. Boost and blend in gray with highlights

There's no question that gray hair is officially cool, but whether it looks murky or marvelous is up to your colorist and stylist. A few highlights can quickly turn steely, slate gray lively, add body to thin gray hair or help you transition to gray more easily. Since gray hair can sometimes make mature skin look tired, ashy or pasty, adding highlights can also warm up and energize your complexion, too. But there's another part to making gray work for you: Consider snipping to a contemporary style that rocks — like a short crop or sassy bob — to show off gleaming silver with an attitude.

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6. Switch to a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner

Color-processed hair is drier, more porous (meaning it doesn't retain moisture well) and prone to damage and breakage. To get hair looking healthier ASAP start using sulfate-free formulas. Your hair will feel silkier, frizz will be minimized, and your color will look fresh longer. Shampoos and conditioners with sulfates feel luxurious but they work like detergents to strip away beneficial hair oils, irritate sensitive scalps and cause color to fade. Next, change your other shampoo habits to see real results. Wash and condition with tepid — not hot — water, and concentrate the shampoo on the scalp and the conditioner on the hair shaft. Rinse extra well and always use a leave-in conditioner/heat protectant before you dry.

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(Left to right) Susan Sarandon, Jane Krakowski and Molly Ringwald
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7. Try a color-depositing or -brightening shampoo

Color sometimes looks great the day you do it but then fades away or turns brassy and dull a couple of weeks later. The bad news: If you wash your hair daily, swim often or have red or blonde hair, your color is the first to go. But really, all processed color suffers over time. Try a color-depositing (with a hint of pigment) or a color-enhancing shampoo (that just neutralizes unwanted tones). They can help eliminate brassiness, restore vibrancy and amp up the sparkle in highlights. Violet shampoo brightens blonde or gray hair (highlighted or not), while shade-specific tinted formulas perk up brunette and red shades. Use once every 10 days as needed.

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Annette Bening (left) and Tilda Swinton
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8. Get your hair color and hairstyle in sync

When it comes to style and hue, timing is everything. Get roots done before a haircut; do highlights or a major color update after a cut. Salons always book color first, followed by a cut or trim and blow-dry. That works for a simple root touch-up and minimal trim. However, if you are cutting inches, getting a new style or snipping in bangs and layers, give your colorist a chance to see your finished hair look and the way you really wear it before you color. Remember to add any daily signatures, too, like glasses or bold lipstick. This may mean two separate appointments or an extra-long day at the salon, but it's worth it. Hair color should always enhance your skin and your hair's style and texture. Does yours?

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9. Let go of heat styling perfection

With our relaxed life and work styles, no one aims for a perfect blowout anymore. Leave the newscaster hairdos to TV stars and find alternate ways to style your hair. You don't have to entirely break up with your blow-dryer and heat tools, but use them less and always with a heat protectant applied first. You might try air-drying your hair or using a hot styling brush to speed the process and minimize traction stress, go back to your natural texture, wear it pulled up in a messy knot or back in a ponytail, or add a scarf or trendy hairband. If you usually wash your hair four times a week, try cutting down to two.

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10. Give dark hair a lighter, brighter or shorter update

If you've always had raven black or espresso brown hair, age 50-plus isn't the best time to keep it long and dark — it simply makes every wrinkle, under-eye shadow and puff extra obvious along with your gray roots. Something's gotta give. Sure, certain celebrities have long black hair, but I'm betting there's a team of cosmetic surgeons, dermatologists and hairstylists behind the scenes. Adding some balayage streaks to warm up the color with glints of amber, cinnamon or copper is one way to go. Other stars take a contemporary approach and chop their locks to a short modern crop or bob before adjusting the color to a more flattering hue with a single process in mocha or chestnut. You can do the same.

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