12 Ways to Wear Long Hair Again at 50+
Styling tips to make longer locks a crowning glory
by Lois Joy Johnson, AARP, September 16, 2021
En español | Some of us have been long-hair fans from middle school to Medicare. Other women over 50 who’ve bounced from bobs to pixies to shags have now joined the long-hair club. Well-meaning hair stylists tell us an “age appropriate” cut will look thicker and healthier. We’re not buying it. Not when long hair makes us feel sassy, spirited and sexy. So, here’s the problem. How do you wear long hair when it has gone thinner, drier and grayer, and lost its zing? These 12 tips will make “long hair, don’t care” your favorite expression.
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1. Consider going shoulder length
Not everyone can do a “Rapunzel” look with ultra-long hair at 50. Yes, Demi Moore, Christie Brinkley and Sofia Vergara (see tip number 11) can, but let’s not get into the whole celebrity does-she-or-doesn’t-she extension discussion. For lots of us the most practical long length is sweeping the shoulders or an inch below … like a lob (long bob) that’s overgrown. It’s long enough to feel long, pull back or wear up, but short enough to not get stringy at the ends. If your hair is thin, thinning or fine this is one of the best ways to keep it long. It looks modern worn casually and undone or amped up with products and tools for extra waves, curls or volume. You can’t lose.
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2. Snip in bangs for an update
Let’s be honest, the vertical frame of long hair can sometimes drag down an aging face, emphasizing droopy lids, a saggy jawline or deep nose-to-mouth creases. Cutting a full fringe is an immediate game changer. The strong horizontal line of bangs brings the focus straight to our eyes while camouflaging forehead lines, skimpy misshapen brows and the vertical furrows between them (known as “the elevens”). Aside from all the above, bangs not only give ordinary long hair of every length a statement look, but also help your face look “dressed” even on days when your hair is pulled back or up. Who’d say no to that?
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3. Add highlights to boost color and thickness
Two common hair problems at 50-plus — thinning and dull, drab color — sometimes make us think twice about going long. Problem solved! Just adding warm highlights to any color makes an immediate difference. Whether you opt for a classic foil technique or brush on balayage streaks, highlights add “dimension,” as stylists say. Here’s why. The tone-on-tone effect creates the illusion of width and volume — just the way stripes do in clothing — while the color coats the hair for a physically fatter texture. Highlighted long hair tends to look thicker, healthier, more glowing. Instead of a full head of highlights, try one these three lower-maintenance options: You can add a few “lights” just around the face, opt for low-contrast highlights not too far from your base color, or ask for ombré color that melts from darker at the roots to lighter toward the ends.
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4. Vary the part
Some women part their hair the same way every day. Nothing wrong with that, but flipping the part from one side to the other or from side to center is a good idea. It provides instant lift at the roots and hairline, and prevents a flat look … and a thinning part. In general, middle parts are hard to wear at 50-plus (unless you have bangs) since the straight down-the-center line emphasizes asymmetries in face shape and features (a natural part of aging, for sure, but who needs that?). Instead, go slightly off-center or zigzag the center part instead of an arrow-straight line. Side parts are always sexy thanks to the swoop of hair they create, and they add oomph at the crown. Change is good.
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5. Ask your stylist for a few layers
We might ooh and aah over long, luxurious one-length hair, but who at 50-plus has that? Besides, even if we did, that long hunk of hair still could use some help. Just by adding a couple of long layers around the face, any long-hair look gains movement and bounce. Keep the layers few and long — starting no higher than around chin length. Please note that you don’t want choppy “Rachel” layers or precise angled ones. Those pieces should be staggered and carefully snipped to work with every part variation and hair that is straight, waved, curled or worn back or up. Layering the ends of long hair is also a good option, since it adds some texture and a slightly shaggy look that makes long hair feel cool, not high-school retro. During blowouts use a brush to flick out those ends for a broken-up, fragmented effect.
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6. Create sophisticated curls
Big bouncy curls or allover springy ringlets can create a head-turning look, but know it’s really a one-night-only, special-effects thing. You’ll need a heat protectant spray or setting spray and your choice of curling iron, hot rollers or no-heat roller to set in the curl. Use a large-barrel curling iron or roller to create looser curls and a smaller-barrel iron or rollers to make tighter curls. If you go the curling iron route, work on dry hair and wrap each section for only a few seconds (any longer and you fry your hair!). Leave the ends out as you roll for an edgier look; tuck them in as you work to get a classic spiral. Setting dry hair on hot rollers for 20 minutes after a blow-dry can also deliver luscious, big and buoyant movie-star curls. For a heat-free alternative, set damp hair on foam rollers or flexible rods (both available at drugstores). And note from beauty editor-me: You can also sleep comfortably in these and style away in the morning.
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7. Do an adult ponytail
Those of us with long hair know a major perk is the ability to pull it back. A ponytail is great on bad hair days and dirty hair days, at the gym or when we just need a quick, chic look without much styling effort. Everyday ponytails require no more than a hair-toned elastic or a scrunchie and look best worn mid-head or at the nape. (Leave the super-high tails to teens and celebs.) Get a finished look simply by wrapping a small section of hair around the elastic-secured pony to cover the band. For a more elegant look, prep the hair with a blowout and styling product for volume at the crown before doing the tail. And FYI: Strategically pulling out those few face-framing strands (see how important they are!) around the face elevates any ponytail to edgy. No leather jacket needed.
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8. Make a bun or topknot your updo
Some call this the "Meghan Markle effect," but slightly disheveled knots and poufs at the crown or nape are worth a try day or night. Sleeker chignons and knots are still classy, but contemporary versions have a looser, more street-smart attitude. Unlike a high ponytail, a high bun has an adult feeling — and this look works just as well at the nape. You’ll need hair that’s a longer “long” for this one, and if it has some texture (naturally or from styling product), so much the better. Start by making a ponytail. Then twist the pony loosely around itself to form a bun. You may also divide the tail in half, twist the sections loosely together and then wrap to form a bun. Secure all with bobby pins that match your hair color. Leaving bangs or those “pieces” free around the face not only looks new but softens the severity of pulling your hair back.
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9. Pump up the volume with rollers
Big, bombshell supermodel waves that stand up and away from the scalp make long hair look movie-star glam, but they depend on a roller set. You can use the same roller methods as in tip number 6, but instead of the curls aim for waves by using only large rollers. Before you blow-dry, a prep using volumizing spray or mousse followed by a rough dry with hair flipped over (bend at the waist) prior to setting helps build in body. To finish the styling without undoing the volume, unroll, bend at the waist and use a vent brush or fingers to gently rake through the hair before flipping it back. Alternate your part (see tip number 4) for extra lift at the roots, and mist lightly with a non-crunchy hair spray for hold. To revive body and bounce on day two or three just reset for 10 to 15 minutes.
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10. Try boho waves
If you’ve been using a flat iron to style your long hair into submission, beachy waves may be a good way to stop — or at least minimize — the heat-styling. It’s a looser, less-controlled look than glam waves or curls, and the irregular ripply effect is great on any long length from shoulders down. Use one of two easy methods: For a quick fix, diffuser-dry damp hair that has been prepped with texturizing spray — doing that bend-at-the-waist thing to increase the volume; or braid damp hair overnight before briefly rough drying (1–2 minutes max) in the a.m. to fluff up the ripples. The looser and fewer the braids, the looser the ripple. Boho waves work best on hair with some natural texture or frizz, since this helps enhance the result.
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11. Opt for a big cloud of textured hair
Obviously if your hair is naturally textured or curly, you’re ahead of the game for this fluffy look that makes a spectacular special-night effect. Although few women 50-plus can achieve a supersized mane of hair without the help of extensions and a hairdresser (after all, our hair is thinner at this point) for a party or wedding, this might be fun to try — as these celebs did.
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12. Keep it trimmed, styled and healthy
Don’t just grow it. This isn’t your old high school/college/’60s hippie hair. Having long hair at 50-, 60- and 70-plus takes strategy. If it looks dry, damaged, dull or brittle it’s not doing you any favors — no matter how great the style. A basic routine should include hydrating shampoos and conditioners, protein masks, leave-in conditioners and heat-protecting sprays. Since swearing off heat tools forever isn’t realistic for most of us, update with heat-safe ceramic and ionic dryers and irons — and use them on the lowest possible setting. Get trims every six to eight weeks if you’ve reached your desired length or every eight to 10 weeks if you’re growing it to control splits and damage at the ends. And don’t let anyone talk you into short hair!
Lois Joy Johnson is a beauty and style editor who focuses on women 50 and older. She was the beauty and style editor at Ladies’ Home Journal and a founding editor of More magazine. She has written three books: The Makeup Wakeup, The Wardrobe Wakeup and The Woman's Wakeup.