How (Not) to Dye Your Hair Gray with Daniel Savant and Alice Gehlbach

Daniel Savant at work in his Peoria salon.
Daniel Savant at work in his Peoria salon.
Tom Carlson

New year, new you — new hobbies. In the 2016 edition of Project PHX, our annual how-to guide, we're here to help with DIY projects that range from doable to dreamy. Learn how to build a tiny house and make your own chocolate. Become an embroidery artist, publish your first novel, and maybe dye your hair gray (or not).

Fashion trends embraced by the middle-aged typically involve obscuring the ravages of time: bangs to cover creased foreheads, Botox, blouses with hip-hiding peplums. But the newest craze among fashion-forward gals of a certain age is all about embracing their inner granny. Lots of 50-something women are dyeing their hair gray.

It's a trend that began, oddly enough, with young hipsters. "Pink did it first, I think" says Daniel Savant, owner of SaVant Salon in Peoria. "Then Miley Cyrus did it. Then Rhianna. After a while, my middle-aged clients started asking about it. You know, 'Well, I'm thinking of going gray, that way I won't have to do so much touching up my roots . . .'"

Savant tells people that if they must go gray unnaturally, have a professional colorist do it. "There are so many things that can go wrong. But, you know," he says, glancing around his neat, well-appointed salon, "some people are going to try to do it themselves, no matter what you tell them."

That means potentially messing up your hair, Savant says, because the chemicals and dye can harm even the healthiest locks. If you absolutely insist on going silver at home, Savant suggests a full-on, deep-conditioning treatment a week or so before you do the deed. Not washing your hair for a few days beforehand is a good idea, too, because the natural oils from your scalp will protect hair from further damage from the chemicals you're about to glob on.

Step One, which Savant says people sometimes try to skip, is bleaching your hair white. "I've seen some pretty wild colors come in here," he confides, "because people are trying to dye their natural hair color silver or gray. It just doesn't work."

Following the bleaching with a bluing rinse will keep it from turning yellow. The purple tone that bluing gives to bleached hair also gives the silver some depth, Savant explains. "Otherwise, your hair is going to be all one color, and most people with gray hair don't have just one shade of gray."

Smear Vaseline around your hairline to keep the dye from staining your skin, says Savant, who in his salon uses perm solution to remove hair dye from foreheads and temples. Make sure you're applying dye from the root all the way to the end of your hair, and pay close attention to the time on the box. If the instructions say to leave the stuff on for 20 minutes, Savant says, leave it on for 20 minutes.

Your work isn't over once you've washed out the hair dye, Savant insists. "You've got to use shampoos that don't contain sulfates, because they'll pull the color out of your hair. And you've got to add dye every couple of weeks to keep the gray looking gray. Not to mention doing your roots every month or so. That's fun."

Savant, a Phoenix native, has been steering his clients gently away from going gray. People tend to sallow as they age, he tries to explain. Our skin gets yellower, or grayer as we get older, he tells clients. Dyeing your hair gray is not the answer, he advises. "Darker hair brings out your shadows and wrinkles. I say, 'Let's put in a darker-toned base color, and then a highlight tone based on your skin tone.'"

Most listen, Savant says. Others insist on giving gray a whirl.

"Almost every time I've done it, they hate it," he reports. "Ninety-eight percent of the time, they're just horrified. Within six weeks, they're back. They say, 'You know, I've been thinking about it . . .' And they have me dye their hair back to whatever color they were using before."

Here's what Savant doesn't tell people: Most of the time, you have to be a stunningly attractive person to pull off gray hair. "The guy in those TV commercials for Trivago? Well, he was good looking before he had gray hair," Savant says.

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Clients come in with magazine photographs of beautiful gray-haired people, and Savant groans. Models. Actors. Tim Gunn. "So I'm looking at a picture of this pretty model in her 70s with a gorgeous head of gray hair. She's been completely airbrushed. And my client is saying, 'Oh, my god, I want to look like that.' I have to tell her, 'Okay, you can't look like that. The person in the picture doesn't even look like that."

The gray-hair trend will wind down soon, Savant says. "It won't be a trend for much longer," he promises. "Dyeing your hair gray will become something people will do periodically, as a style, but not something that's fashionable and trendy."

In the meantime, he's had to be frank with clients. "I tell people, 'No. I'm not doing it. Go someplace else. I'm not going to ruin you and have you say I did it.'" And usually, Savant reports, they go home and try to dye their hair gray themselves.

Peoria hair stylist Daniel Savant.
Peoria hair stylist Daniel Savant.
Tom Carlson

Alice Gehlbach was one of those clients. Savant has been cutting Gehlbach's hair for more than 30 years. "She was a blonde for a long time, and then one day, she showed up and she had this gray silvery look to her hair. I went, 'Uh-huh. Here we go.'"

"I'm older," Gehlbach says in her defense. "I'm 54. So I'm watching friends and family fight the gray. I figured, my hair is blonde anyway, and maybe I can speed things up a little, sneak some silver in there."

Gehlbach chose what she calls "a nice silver," which she thought would look good with her lighter hair. "I was hoping for streaks of silver, but that didn't really happen," she says. "Depending on what light you were in, my hair looked either blue, or battleship gray. And it always looked flat and fake. Not what I was looking for. I'm like, 'Dan, fix this!'"

Getting her hair to look good again, Gehlbach says, took Savant most of an afternoon. "I went back to being a blonde," she reports with a sigh. "I'm using a conditioner with bluing now to keep it from getting yellow, to stay away from that old lady, blue-hair glow. Other than that, I'm going to just wait until I actually go gray completely."

Maybe, Gehlbach says, she'll get lucky. "I'm hoping to be one of those people who just end up with totally white hair," she says. "Because if it comes in battleship gray, I'm going to have to color it."

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