Gray Hair, Don’t Care: How Women Ditching Dye Could Uproot The Hair Care Industry

Last July, right before her 44th birthday, an upcoming hair-color appointment filled Osmia Organics founder Sarah Villafranco with angst. She’d been dying her hair religiously every three to four weeks for years to cover grays and hit her breaking point. Villafranco sighs, “I remember looking at the calendar and thinking, ‘Wow, I just had an appointment.”

When she considered the hours she spent in the salon chair (two-and-a-half per appointment) and the money she forked over ($220 a dye job), she got angry. “Why has dyeing our grays become a thing?” Villafranco recalls thinking. “Why is it that we are ashamed of un-pigmented hair? It’s crazy if you stop and think about it. It’s like being ashamed of your skin color.” In August, she decided to embrace her salt-and-pepper strands for good and began sharing her going-gray journey on Osmia’s Instagram account.

Villafranco is part of a small, but budding group of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s ditching the dye and letting their silver streaks fly. Money and time are almost always factored into their rationale for making the switch, but avoiding harsh chemicals in hair-color formulas, and taking stances against society’s beauty ideals and obsession with youth play roles, too. Others view keeping grays as a means to jump on the faux silver and gray hair-color trend without being fake.

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Lisa Fennessy, better know as This Organic Girl, has chronicled her transition from hair-colored tresses to gray strands.

Social media has been influential in the formation of the blossoming pro-gray community. Members identify themselves by proudly tagging their photos with hashtags like #displaythegray, #silversisters, #grayhairdontcare and #goinggray. Many document their grow-out process similar to the way people following fitness plans show off before-and-after pictures. They often mention the date of their last hair color to show their progress from artificial to natural hair color.

Lisa Fennessy, the beauty and lifestyle blogger behind This Organic Girl, has chronicled her path to gray for over a year. “Whether it be on my blog or on social, I feel like the world is cheering me on, and it has absolutely has had an impact,” she says. “I honestly have found myself wondering if I would have had the same strength and sticktoitiveness if I was going this alone.” Fennessy thinks interest in going gray is rising, although it’s far from universal. She says, “I can totally feel this movement rumbling, but it’s not loud yet.”

“Why is it that we are ashamed of un-pigmented hair? It’s crazy if you stop and think about it. It’s like being ashamed of your skin color.”

If the movement picks up momentum, it could upend a hair-color market dependent on hiding gray hairs. According to Cyrus Bulsara, president of beauty data specialist Professional Consultants and Resources, at-home mass retail hair-color offerings generate $1.4 billion in annual revenues, and the salon hair-color business generates $901 million at manufacturers’ prices. He estimates gray coverage is responsible for half of hair-color sales across the retail and salon segments.

Overall, the hair-color business isn’t faring terrifically at the moment, per PCR’s 2017 Professional Salon Industry Hair Care Study documenting a slowdown in the sales growth of hair-color services. Bulsara says the dip is “due to high costs and lower salon visit frequencies, plus a growing number of women embracing their natural gray, silver or white.”

Salons and hair care brands are divided on what gray acceptance spells for them. There are a few salons like Maida Salon in San Diego capitalizing on the skill required to help grays grow out gracefully. Maida Salon owner Farah Hurdle, who is a proponent of a gray blend for her own hair, has noticed younger clients are less interested in covering their silver streaks. In response, she began providing a “blending” service at Maida Salon to transition them from root touch-ups to gray blends.

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Products from the new hair care brand Hush.

“I explain how we need to highlight and lowlight the hair for about six months,” she says, breaking down how she pitches the blending service to clients. “The appointment times are about the same as they’re used to from coming in for the root touch-up, but the cost is a little bit more. This is a temporary investment into the fact that they can eventually start spacing out appointment times and finally just come in for haircuts. This is a better transition for the grow-out process and for their brain to adjust to seeing the gray.”

Since she put blending on the menu, Hurdle shares salon revenue has increased because she has gained new clients despite the fact that she may be setting them up to make fewer appointments in the future. “I am loving this transition in the beauty industry,” says Hurdle. “I am here to help people feel better and look better too, so I don’t worry about potential financial losses.”

“In the salon biz as well as the retail consumer biz, gray coverage is, has been and will be the number-one hair-coloring request.”

New hair brand Hush is trying to get ahead of gray escalation. Ann Kohatsu, director of product development, says, “We saw an opportunity for women who have either used hair color and are fatigued with the process and maintenance as well as a burgeoning segment of the population that is going gray as more of a fashion statement.”

For those with hair-dye fatigue, the brand proffers volumizing Fill Seeker Hair Plumping Fibers. Kohatsu says, “The gray shade of this product will attract the women that have embraced their natural grays and have the desire to disguise sparse areas.” For the gray hair fashionistas, Hush suggests a silver version of its temporary color spray Prism Airbrush Spray. “The Tin(wo)man shade is primarily for the millennial target who wants the trend-driven silver look, but this product can also be used by the gen Xers and beyond who are just beginning to embrace their natural grays.” says Kohatsu. “These women can blend in any uneven salt and pepper hair with a spritz of Tin(wo)man for a smoother, consistent tone of silver, which we believe is an opportunity.”

In about three months on the market, Fill Seeker’s gray hue isn’t selling at the velocity of Hush’s darker shades. Kohatsu thinks that’s because there are still more women coloring their hair than retaining grays. However, she maintains, “It’s an important shade to have in the range as many women that self-identify with having sparse areas are in the more mature age group…We expect that, in the upcoming years, we will see the gray shade increase in volume, knowing the embracing of gray-hair trend is here and most likely here to stay.”

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Fennessy believes gray-hair acceptance is rising, but it remains a small movement.

Not everyone shares Kohatsu’s assuredness about the relevance of the gray-hair trend. Master colorist David Stanko, vice president of technical design and education at hair-color company Madison Reed, says, in his 30-plus years of doing hair, the main goal of women of all ages has been to cover grays, and he doesn’t see that goal disappearing. He declares, “In the salon biz as well as the retail consumer biz, gray coverage is, has been and will be the number-one hair-coloring request.”

Currently, Madison Reed owns two hair-color destinations called Color Bars, one in New York City and one in San Francisco, but it has an aggressive expansion plan to open 15 to 20 more locations in less than two years. Stanko says, “We wouldn’t have made that move if we saw the gray coverage piece backing off any time soon.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • A small but growing number of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are quitting hair coloring and embracing grays.
  • Much of the gray-hair movement is taking place on Instagram, where followers use hashtags like #displaythegray and #silversisters to show off their salt-and-pepper strands.
  • Sales of hair-color products intended to cover grays make up roughly 50% of the hair-color market.
  • Leading-edge salons are offering “gray blending” services to help women transition from hair coloring to their natural gray shades and create a new revenue stream.
  • Hair care newcomer Hush created products specifically tailored for women with gray hair because the brand believes the gray hair acceptance is poised to mount.
  • Other companies like Madison Reed believe the market for gray coverage isn’t budging and have aggressive growth plans to address it.