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Hair Color Secrets of a Celebrity Pro

L.A. star colorist Tracey Cunningham on finding and keeping the best hue for your hair


spinner image from left to right jennifer grey then amy pohler then holland taylor
(Left to right) Jennifer Grey, Amy Poehler and Holland Taylor
Emma McIntyre/WireImage; Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images; John Shearer/Getty Images

We look at celebs our age and wonder: Are dark roots on a mature blonde tacky or terrific? Does anyone do a single process anymore? Is going lighter after 50 the best solution for all? Would her hair color work for me? The last question is key. Every woman who colors her hair shows her colorist celebrity photos and says, “I want that!” For the inside story, I asked L.A. celebrity colorist and Olaplex brand ambassador Tracey Cunningham — whose clients include Jennifer Lopez, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Halle Berry and Holland Taylor — for A-list answers to these and other top hair color questions of women today. And added some of my own beauty-editor tips too.

spinner image from left to right holland taylor then julia louis dreyfus then melanie griffith
(Left to right) Holland Taylor, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Melanie Griffith
John Shearer/Getty Images; Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for NRDC; Tibrina Hobson/WireImage

1. Question: Is my hair color making me look older?

Sometimes hair color simply stops flattering you. It washes you out and emphasizes lines, wrinkles and discolorations. You end up piling on blush and bright lipstick to compensate, when it’s your hair color that needs a boost. “The best hair color for women 50-plus will complement their skin tone first, hair second,” says Cunningham. “It’s true that a color that has worked for years may need a tweak as women age and the natural color and texture of the skin changes. Schedule a 15-minute consultation with your colorist. At 50, look for color that adds warmth to the face and highlights that brighten — and be sure to discuss any skin concerns so your color strategy can address them.”

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Whether you’re looking sallow, pasty or fatigued or showing visible signs of sun damage, hair color can work like a giant dose of corrective makeup. The ironic thing is the right hair color will make you look terrific even without any makeup! Remember: Warm skin tones with a yellow or golden undertone often benefit from cool highlights like champagne, sand and mocha, while cool skin tones with a rosy or ashy undertone often benefit from warmer highlights like honey, caramel, butterscotch and cinnamon.

spinner image from left to right amy pohler then heidi klum then maria bello
(Left to right) Amy Poehler, Heidi Klum and Maria Bello
Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images; Steve Granitz/FilmMagic; VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images

2. Question: Should blond hair have dark roots at 50?  

Not long ago a peek of dark regrowth would send chemical blondes (like beauty-editor me), racing for a touch-up. We thought visible roots made us look fake, lazy and cheap. Now it’s a major trend. But is it a good idea when your roots are gray, not dark?

“The shadow root trend — where the roots are darker than the rest of the hair — is very popular now,” says Cunningham. “It’s harder for those with gray hair beneath the blond to maintain that look, but it can be done with regular salon touch-ups every four to six weeks. Clients who are on this schedule get used to the maintenance. If you like this look, go for it!”

OK, I’ll add my two cents here: Yes, if you’re gray, you will need to color your roots a deeper tone and then do your usual blonding-up thing. The bonus is that dark roots on blond hair create the illusion of density at the scalp for those with thin or fine hair, and of course, they make you look more contemporary and cool. The root show should be a gradual transition, not a sharp contrast.

spinner image from left to right christa miller then jennifer grey then kris jenner
(Left to right) Christa Miller, Jennifer Grey and Kris Jenner
Steve Granitz/FilmMagic; Emma McIntyre/WireImage; Marc Piasecki/WireImage

3. Question: How do I keep brunette hair flattering?

Not everyone wants to be blond nor should they, though a frame of inky-dark locks has a bad rep for draining color from the skin and emphasizing under-eye circles and wrinkles. Some mature celebs like Jennifer Grey, Crista Miller and Kris Jenner do manage to keep their dark brown hair going successfully, so what’s the secret?

According to Cunningham, even subtle sparks of varying color make a difference. “The best combination is a mix of rich tones that will help add depth and dimension, so your dark hair is not one solid flat color,” she says. “This usually requires a combination of highlights and lowlights. However, you can still do a single process and add just a hint of highlight for a flattering difference. I mix a variety of warm brown shades like espresso, chocolate and hazelnut into dark hair.”

For dark hair, highlights around the face add a color lift exactly where you need it most (and it is usually where hair typically has the most gray.) Even very blended highlights only a shade or two away from your dark base color can add warmth, though the highlights may not be visible as such to the untrained eye.

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(Left to right) Jennifer Lopez, Maya Rudolph and Halle Berry
Steve Granitz/FilmMagic (2); Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for The Red Sea International Film Festival

4. Question: So, does everyone need highlights?

Once a splurge, highlights, or “streaks” as we used to call them, have become routine for women over 50 (just like salon manicures). But they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. “I always ask clients, what are you trying to achieve with your hair color?” explains Cunningham. “I might recommend something completely different for a client who wants her hair to look thicker and more voluminous than one who wants to complement her skin tone and brighten her face. A base coat with highlights and lowlights needs more touch-ups than a single process but in my opinion it’s what makes 50-plus hair look beautiful, current and youthful. Highlights can be warm or a mix of warm and cool tones. The latter is especially helpful when your base color is a cool, ashy hue.”

FYI: Lowlights are darker tones sometimes used with highlights to add even more depth and dimension to a hair color. They’re a great fast fix when you overdo the highlighting and your allover color begins looking too light. But yes, doing your regular color plus additional contrast tones can be pricey. You can minimize the expense and maintenance three ways: Choose low-contrast highlights within two shades of your base color; opt for just a few highlights around the face instead of all over; or ask for subtle hand-painted balayage highlights that progress from dark to light. All require fewer touch-ups and work whether you’re blond, red or brunette.

spinner image Olaplex No.4P Blonde Enhancer Toning Shampoo, Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector, and Olaplex No. 5P Blonde Enhancer Toning Conditioner; Crown Affair The Towel; Vuja De Beauty V1 Detangle
(Left to right) Olaplex No.4P Blonde Enhancer Toning Shampoo and Olaplex No.5P Blonde Enhancer Toning Conditioner; Olaplex No.3 Hair Perfector; Crown Affair The Towel; Vuja De Beauty V1 Detangle
OLAPLEX; Crown Affair; Vuja De Beauty

5. Question: How can I get damaged, color-treated hair healthy again and keep it that way?

Women really challenge their hair. They color and highlight, blow-dry and use hot tools like flat irons and curling irons. Even though many use conditioner, beautiful color can suffer from dryness, breakage and textural changes. Cunningham has several suggestions.

“Every hair product you use should be color-safe and without sulfates, which are too harsh for chemically processed hair,” she says. “I suggest clients use a weekly pre-shampoo treatment like Olaplex No.3 Hair Perfector [$30, olaplex.com] to help boost overall hair strength and resilience, a detangling brush like the Vuja De Beauty V1 Detangle [$40, vujadebeauty.com], which also stimulates the scalp, and a microfiber towel like the Crown Affair The Towel [$45, crownaffair.com] to blot shampooed hair and minimize frizz. Reducing the number of weekly shampoos also helps keep color looking healthier as does sleeping on a silk pillowcase or in a silk bonnet. If you have color-treated blond or gray hair, or have blond highlights be sure to use a purple shampoo and conditioner once or twice a week.”

As a color-treated blonde, I use L’Oréal Paris EverPure Sulfate Free Purple Shampoo and L’Oréal EverPure Sulfate Free Purple Conditioner ($9 each, target.com) on a regular basis to keep the brassiness at bay.

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(Left to right) Helen Mirren, Connie Britton, Marisa Tomei and Jane Krakowski
Gregg DeGuire/WireImage; Momodu Mansaray/WireImage; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

6. Question: How does hair color affect your eyebrow and makeup shades?

Good question, since many 50-plus women who change or tweak the shade of their hair or add highlights neglect to update their brow color and cosmetics. For example, if you have ashy brown hair and decide to go honey blond, changing your cool-toned makeup for warmer, more golden, peachy shades will bring hair and face into alignment.

“If you go from a lighter color — blond or gray — back to brunette, for example, you may look better with more intensely pigmented colors than light or pastel ones,” Cunningham says. She also suggests treating graying brows to a quick salon boost when you do color touch-ups. “If you’re coloring your hair but have gray in your eyebrows, ask your colorist to tint them close to your natural brow color before they grayed,” she says. “But avoid going too dark. If you’ve gone silver and have gray brows, tint the brows a shade or two darker that’s close to your natural color.”

spinner image from left to right marcia gay harden then calista flockhart then marlee matlin
(Left to right) Marcia Gay Harden, Calista Flockhart and Marlee Matlin
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; Gisela Schober/Getty Images; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

7. Question: Should I color or cut first?

Suddenly there you are at 50 with a once luxurious and shiny head of hair that’s changed. It may be thinner or more coarse and the color and style may seem incompatible. The color may take differently or seem “off.”

“Many women find their hair becomes more porous as it ages, which affects how hair color is absorbed,” says Cunningham. “One sign is your hair color may need to sit on the hair longer during treatments to achieve the correct color. High porosity also causes color to fade faster too. My advice is to get your hair cut before it’s colored and let your stylist and colorist work together to improve hair issues and make sure the cut and color complement one another. Lean into how your hair looks its personal best instead of an idealized look.”

My suggestion: To test porosity, drop a few hairs from your brush into a glass of water. If they float your hair is low porosity, if they sink it’s high porosity. Porous hair knots and snarls easily so be sure to use a detangler after every shampoo and comb through gently from the ends to the scalp to prevent breakage.

spinner image from left to right isabelle huppert then julianne moore then nicole kidman
(Left to right) Isabelle Huppert, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images; Dominik Bindl/Getty Images; John Phillips/Getty Images

8. Question: Is red hair more difficult to wear and maintain?

Red hair is said to need more pampering to stay true. Some women opt for a more natural warm red, others choose a clearly faux blue-red that verges on burgundy. Red is compelling but tricky. “Yes, it’s true that red hair color fades more quickly and requires more frequent appointments with your colorist,” Cunningham says. “However, it’s a myth that red is difficult to wear, so long as you choose the right shade or blend of shades to suit your coloring. I’m not a fan of blue-red hair colors. Burgundy hair is not a color found in nature and never looks natural. Warmer reds flatter mature faces of every skin tone. If you have a warm skin tone look for shades of coppery red; if your skin is cool look for true reds like a dark strawberry or ginger.”

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