Five years ago, author Marcia Kester Doyle, 59, decided an unusual hair choice might help her stand out at a writer’s conference she was preparing to attend. No stranger to color, Doyle had been dyeing her hair blonde since her teens and had recently added black to the underside. 

For the conference, she asked her stylist to include bright red, giving her hair a three-tiered appearance: blonde on top, candy apple in the middle, and black at the bottom.

“I was just feeling kind of bold, and I thought why not?” she says.

The color worked. Conference attendees remembered Doyle even months after the event, so for the next one she decided to trade red and black for pink and purple. Now her hair draws attention everywhere she goes.

“I get stopped on vacation, in Lowe’s, at Publix,” says Doyle, who lives near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.. “People stop and take pictures of my hair all the time. I like the attention; it’s a lot of fun.”

Doyle isn’t alone with her quest for stop-you-in-the-street hair. Click through Pinterest or Instagram pages and you’ll see hundreds of selfies and portraits of women 50 and older with locks that can shock. 

Some women are going for a more pastel look, such as Helen Mirren, 73, who first dyed her hair a soft pink in 2013, and Cate Blanchett, 49, who sported pale pink hair on a magazine cover last fall.

People stop Marcia Kester Doyle, shown here next to her husband Mac, and ask her about her hair.

While Doyle says younger people feel more comfortable approaching her (in part, she thinks, because she also has tattoos), everybody wants to know how her hair is done. 

It’s no easy feat. Once a month, she visits her stylist who bleaches the top of her hair blonde and then dyes the middle and bottom pink and dark purple, respectively. It takes three hours.

“It’s a long process, but I love it,” Doyle says. “My stylist is a good friend of mine, so we sit and have coffee while the colors are setting.”

From punk to Pinterest

For years, fantasy hair colors stayed in the alternative realm. Manic Panic—arguably the most well-known semi-permanent color line—was founded in 1977 by Snooky and Tish Bellamo, sisters who sang backup for Blondie and founded their own punk bands.

Now? While it’s hard to quantify, dyeing your hair pink, blue, purple or green is not as bold a move as it used to be.

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“Over the last 16 years, it’s become a lot more mainstream,” says Liz Waits, a hair stylist at Bramble + Balm Salon and Boutique in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

She credits social media

Helen Mirren first dyed her hair pink in 2013.

“People see posts on Instagram and want to try those big, bold colors in their own hair,” she says.

Waits is becoming known in her city as a stylist who’s unafraid of color. She loves an adventurous client, like Debbie Bradley, 62, who had Waits start dyeing her hair multiple colors a little over a year ago. 

Bradley works as an accountant, so feels she must keep her hair somewhat conservative and not too conspicuous, but that hasn’t kept her from playing. 

“My hair’s always been blonde, and I was tired of it and wanted to do something different,” Bradley says. “I called Liz and asked if we could start out with some pink or blue underneath. We started with pastel, very subtle, and every time it’s gotten a little bit more and a little bit brighter.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Life changes—such as turning 50, starting to go gray, or even losing a parent—seem to prompt people to consider new ideas. Just before Trudi Levine turned 50, she was walking down a New York City street behind a woman with bright blue and pink at the base of her hairline.

“Turquoise goes with everything,” says Trudi Levine.

 “It looked like feathers,” Levine, now 68, says. “I loved it.”

At the time, she had very little gray, so her stylist had to bleach a tuft of hair behind Levine’s right ear for her chosen turquoise to take hold.

“My friends were all starting the conversation about dyeing their hair,” Levine says. “I knew I wouldn’t want to do anything that required a lot of upkeep. I’m not running to have my roots done.”

As her hair has turned salt-and-pepper, she’s continued to keep her bright patch, which requires little more than a monthly touch-up. 

“Turquoise goes with everything,” she says, and she likes the unexpectedness of it—that someone can see her from the front and not notice right away.

The patch of turquoise that makes Trudi Levine’s day.

Eight years ago, Betty Nichols, 78, of Portland, Ore., asked her stylist to paint lines of turquoise throughout the back of her gray hair. Like Levine, Nichols didn’t want a color that would require extensive maintenance. 

Now turquoise has become almost a signature for her, and she says her 16-year-old granddaughter and friends love it. She also meets women, especially in their 50s or older, who compliment the color or say it’s something they’ve always wanted to try.

To which she says, “Do it!”

“It’s a fun thing, and it’s a good way to engage with young people,” Nichols says. “I might be at a checkout and someone notices my hair. It seems to be an invitation for a moment of community, and that’s important to me.”

What to know

Though gray hair is lighter than, say, brunette, that doesn’t necessarily mean dye will stick to it.

“Hair as it comes out of the scalp has a glassy layer,” says Karin Marchus of Boston Cutters Salon for Color in Portland, Ore. “When you pre-bleach or put something on there to break up that glassy smooth surface, it lets color deposit into the hair shaft so dye is not just coating the top.”

“Get a price quote. Sometimes things can escalate and you want to avoid sticker shock.”
Karin Marchus
hair color specialist

Every head of hair is different, though, so both Liz Waits and Marchus stress the importance of a one-on-one consultation before making the choice to go bold. A greater mixture of colors makes the process more technical and costly, Marchus adds.

“Find a stylist who has a history working with a variety of colors and textures,” Marchus advises. “And get a price quote. Sometimes things can escalate, and you want to avoid sticker shock.”

In general, dyes available for home purchase don’t last as long as professional brands, except when they do. Trudi Levine and Betty Nichols bring their store-bought dye to stylists who bleach portions of their gray hair and apply the dye for them. Levine maintains her turquoise at home by reapplying dye every month or so. Nichols’s color often lasts six or seven months.

Some color enthusiasts recommend adding a dollop of hair dye to your regular conditioner to help delay fading. Marchus also suggests trying red or blue shampoos, available at most drugstores. Other suggestions include the following:

  • Avoid washing your hair for as long as you can after the initial dyeing session, and wash as infrequently as you can going forward.
  • Use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner.
  • Avoid alcohol-based stylers, as well as heat styling.

And if you want avoid dye altogether but crave color—or want to test a color before committing—Waits suggests temporary colored sprays or waxes or liquid makeup that can be used to paint hints of color onto your hair but that washes right out. Keratin hair extensions provide a longer-term solution, lasting up to four months.

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