Does going green mean going grey?

I want to embrace my natural colour, but acceptance comes in stages

Grey hair #goals
About four years ago, I unlocked an achievement level that very few women in their 40s manage: I grew out my grey hair.

And I did it cold turkey — no “in between” highlights to get me through the transition. Instead, I just waited. And waited. And continued to wait, for approximately 2½ years, until all the previously dyed hair had grown out and been cut off. I was left with only my natural colour, at the time a dark brown with red highlights. Plus a whole lot of grey.

I stopped dying my hair for a bunch of reasons, chief of which was I didn’t want to be bothered with the nuisance anymore. I’d used box dyes, in part because I’m too cheap to pay a salon hundreds of dollars each month to do the job, and partly because I’m too restless to spend all that time in a stylist’s chair. I’m a multitasker, so dying my hair involved mixing up the colour later at night, usually after the kids were asleep, then tidying the house or getting some work done while it set. Even so, it always felt like a messy chore. One I had to repeat every three or four weeks as the roots grew in.

I also figured I wasn’t really worried about ageing or looking younger. Getting older didn’t — and doesn’t — hold a lot of stigma for me. I had no qualms about turning 40, and don’t seem to be that fussed about 50, which is 3½ years away. So why cover my grey?

I lasted maybe four months.

Look, I tried. I really thought I had it down. I thought I was good with the grey. And then December 2013 arrived — also known as the coldest winter on record in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where I live. Temperatures with windchill hit -50°C. Our pipes froze and had to be thawed with a blowdryer. It was too cold to go outside without your skin freezing. Everyone in my house was sick. We plugged in the cars and hoped they would start. The entire landscape was a vast, frozen, sea of greyish white — for miles, and for weeks, on end. And one day, I looked at my salt-and-pepper self in the mirror and thought, My God, I need more colour in my life.

And that was that. I was back on the box dyes. And, for better or worse, I have been ever since.

Lately, though, I find myself beginning to contemplate going grey again. For all the same reasons, and now one more: I feel a little terrible about the impact of all that hair dye on my health, my kids’ health, and the environment. Commercial hair dyes contain things like P-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which is linked to skin irritation and immune and nervous system problems, and ammonia — which can cause respiratory problems and throat irritation. And all those chemicals get rinsed out of my hair into our waterways, where they are linked to soil acidification. Plus the waste of the plastic bottles, latex gloves, and throw-away tubes, etc.

Some box dyes are worse than others. I checked the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep Database to see which products have the lowest impact. On a scale of 1 to 10, products that score from 0 to 2 are considered “low hazard,” while products scored 7 to 10 are classified as “high hazard.” The brand I use? Scored a 9. Ulp.

I don’t know if I’m entirely prepared to go cold turkey on going grey again, though. My current plan is to go in stages, with the goal of rocking my natural colour by my 50th birthday. My first step, clearly, is switching to a brand that’s a bit easier on the environment — fortunately, the EWG’s database has several options in the 0–2 range.

At the same time, I’m getting inspired by collecting images of women with grey hair. Pinterest is full of them — although at first glance, most seem to be of gorgeous 20-somethings who dye their hair grey. Apparently, #grannyhair is a thing. Who knew?

Just in case, I’m also thinking about upping my (currently very weak) game in the eye makeup department — you know, for that pop of colour I seem to need in the winter. Maybe I’ll do a better job of adding more colour to my mostly black and grey wardrobe. Or wear more lipstick. You never know.

And, if there’s need, I may just visit a salon for some of those “in between,” transitional highlights to get me through the worst stages. Why white-knuckle it? Why put up with that white stripe down my centre part if it bugs me? Especially if I can find a salon that uses less hazardous dyes? I have some time — I’ll do my research.

And I’ll keep you posted.


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.

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