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What Is the Difference Between Gray vs. White Hair?

Patricia Lantz C.Ht.
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Gray, silver, or white and the many shades in between are absolutely stunning. But, there's actually no such thing as gray hair. Understanding what gray hair is, how the various shades we refer to as gray come to be, and what you can do to enhance each will only add to your self-confidence.

Differences Between Gray, White, and Silver Hair Colors

Your hair can morph through many different colors as you grow older, but generally:

  • Hair never turns the color gray; however, a person whose natural hair color is a light drab brown can appear to have drab grayish hair.
  • Hair appears to be the various shade of silver when natural cool colored dark hair becomes predominately white.
  • White hair color is seen when the entire head of hair has lost all the pigment that gives hair its color.

Gray Hair Is a Misnomer

Gray hair is actually a product of natural colored hairs mixed with white hairs. There are two color pigments in the hair shaft; eumelanin and pheomelanin. Whether your hair is blonde, brown, red, or black, you have a combination of these two pigments. The more eumelanin in your hair, the darker the hair. The more pheomelanin, the redder the hair. Your younger, natural colored head of hair gradually turns to white as each hair follicle stops producing melanin (the pigment that gives color to hair.)

Hair Death and Regeneration

As each hair goes through its natural cycle of dying and regenerating, it's more likely to grow in without color. It's that colorless transparency against your darker hair that is said to be gray. For some individuals, this occurs early and rapidly, while for others, it occurs slowly over several decades.

The Different Shades of Gray

As you age, you'll likely go from a few strands of white (colorless) hair to an entire head of white hair. What's referred to as "gray hair" comes in different shades. The shade depends on the color of the pigmented hair and the ever-increasing number of translucent white hairs it's interspersed with.

If You Have Brown or Black Hair

Silver, steel, or pewter looking hair indicates that the pigmented hair that surrounds the white hair is brown, dark brown, or black. These hair colors often go from salt and pepper to various shades of silver, and finally to white.

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How to Enhance

Silver, steel, or pewter shades can be enhanced in many ways. Still, one of the easiest is with Roux Fanciful color rinses. This temporary rinse has colors such as True Steel, Silver Lining, White Minx, and Ultra White Minx. You apply after shampooing and conditioning, and it's not rinsed off before styling because it contains styling lotion and conditioner. It's quick and easy, and if you're not happy with the color, it washes out with one shampoo.

If You Have Blonde Hair

Blonds get white hair just like brunets, but some blondes only appear to get a lighter blond while others experience their blonde hairs getting darker and duller as the white hairs begin to appear. Still, blondes can, over time, have a full head of white hair.

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How to Enhance

If you're a blonde, there's no need to accept darker and duller because there are plenty of ways to lighten and brighten your hair. One of the best is to treat yourself to a not too subtle highlighting.

If You Have Red Hair

Some redheads get more brown with natural golden highlights, some have spotty areas of white hair, but most often a natural redhead's entire head of hair gradually fades through a spectrum of colors, from copper to rosy-blonde, and then to white.

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How to Enhance

If you're a natural redhead, there's little you'll need to enhance your hair's color as you grow older. Why? The red pigment in your natural hair is reflected by the white hairs so natural redheads seldom have dull drab hair. You could spice it up with a strawberry blonde color gloss, but normally all that's necessary is to make sure you keep it healthy.

Caring for Your White Hairs

So, you've decided to let your white hairs shine! Good for you. Now, here's how you can add polish to your locks of wisdom.

  • Unless you're a natural redhead, occasionally using a blue or purple-hued shampoo and conditioner will get rid of any unwanted yellow tones that pop up.
  • Hydrating shampoos and conditioners that are full of antioxidants will keep your hair looking bright and fresh.
  • Clarifying shampoos can keep your hair brighter by removing any buildup of styling products, as well as water and air pollutants.
  • You might also want to apply a clear demi-permanent gloss every month or two, to make sure your entire head of hair appears shiny and healthy.
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Covering Your White Hairs

If you want to color your white hairs, there are many options. But first, you need to ask yourself:

  • How much coverage do you want?
  • How long do you want it to last?
  • Is it worth the time and effort?

The type of hair color you use can depend on the natural color of your hair and the number of white hairs you have. If you're considering covering your white hair, it's best to consult a professional colorist. White hairs are not easy to conceal, and many problems can arise if you attempt to do this yourself.

Permanent Color

If your head is over 50% white, permanent color is probably your best option. The problem here is that your hair will grow out with a distinct line and the darker hair color you use, the more frequently you'll need the color retouched.

Semi-Permanent Color

If your head is 30% or less white hairs, you can use semi-permanent color or color glosser. The problem here is that while semi-permanent may wash out of your hair over time and may not leave a distinct line, that's not guaranteed. Plus, while it may blend your white and darker hairs together initially, it won't completely hide white hairs. If you're lucky, your hair could appear highlighted.

Highlighting or Balayage

For a more dramatic look, if you don't as yet have too many white hairs (20 to 30% or less) you could opt for highlighting or balayage that will camouflage your white hairs. The problem here is that you may need to have frequent deep condition treatments and use color glossers to ensure the streaks don't get brassy.

Accentuate Your Shade of Gray

Perhaps you don't want to hide your white hairs, but would rather embrace the new you. There are many semi-permanent dyes, as well as glossers that can accentuate the many shades of gray.

Cosmetic Considerations

As you grow older, you lose pigment slowly, not only from your hair, which is the most obvious sign of aging but also from your skin. As you age the more intense colors of your youth fade and become cooler and softer. Additionally, as the white hairs multiply and your hair becomes dryer, your skin will also become dryer. This means that every few years, or so, you'll need to reassess the colors of the makeup you use and your skincare regimen, as well as the color of the clothes you wear.

Don't Get Discouraged

A lot of people get discouraged when these white hairs pop up, but the lack of pigmentation and the texture of white hair can actually make your hair routine more exciting. Your hair might feel thicker, dry much quicker, need shampooing less often, and hold styles better and longer. Plus you can play with colors. However, the important thing is to first-and-foremost focus on keeping your hair moisturized from scalp to ends. This will ensure that whatever shade of gray your hair is, it will always be soft and shiny.

What Is the Difference Between Gray vs. White Hair?