Saturday, February 7, 2015

Why Does White (or gray, light blonde, highlighted) Hair Turn Yellow: And what to do about it

This applies to white or gray, highlighted and blonde or light brown hair that may tend to become brassy or develop an unnatural color tint - yellow, red, orange or greenish.

White hair has no pigment. Although sometimes that's not entirely the case as a hair turns white. And sometimes there's a dark medulla to add color. The lighter your hair overall, the more likely discoloration from any source will show.


What causes yellowing of light-colored hair?
  • Water chemistry: Hardness or natural minerals, chemicals used for water treatment, seasonal water chemistry changes all impact whether or not your water discolors your hair. For example, if your water source comes from lakes and rivers, it varies greatly (within drinkable limits) with changing seasons and the treatment needed to make the water safe to drink. Some water is high in iron which can give hair an orange, red or yellow cast. Other things in water (metals) can cause green or brown discoloration. Alkaline water can be also problematic (hard water that feels slippery). It's not just minerals that vary, it's nitrates and nitrites, the amount of chlorination required, use of chlorine vs. chloramines for disinfection and whatever your water picks up from pipes on the way to you. 
  • Hair products. Some oils and emollients, preservatives, and colorings can leave a yellowish cast on hair.
  • Scalp oils. Sometimes you own sebum can give your hair a yellowish cast. And your own sebum can vary with seasons - sweat, heat or cold, activity level, microbial activity on your scalp. Natural sebum is a good thing. Don't worry about this one. But if you have oily scalp and you are not forcing it to produce lots of oil by over-washing it, wash it regularly - just don't dry it out. If you wear a hat often - wash the hat regularly or put in a hat band or liner that you can remove and wash. Also remember to wash your comb or brush - any tool that is in contact with your hair every 2-3 weeks in water with some diluted shampoo or hand cleanser to remove any "old" oils that might deposit on your hair.
  • Smoke, pollution. Your hair can pick up these things. Especially close-up smoke like that from smoking cigarettes.
  • Swimming pools and ocean water. Minerals in pool fungicides can cause a greenish or yellow tint, chlorine can increase hair porosity. Salt water dehydrates hair and causes porosity-increasing friction.
  • Sunlight: UV light tends to make hair become more porous and it may also induce yellowing in some hair.
  • Chemical processes: Perms, relaxing can make hair more porous so it is more easily discolored.
  • High-heat styling. Heat from hair dryers on the "high" setting or much higher heat from curling irons or straightening irons tends to make hair more porous so it is more easily discolored. 

What to do?

1) Purple shampoos or conditioners (or additives) - usually made for grey, blonde or silver hair. Purple is meant to cancel out the yellow shade - to deposit a tiny bit of purple to trick your eyes into not seeing the yellow. A purple additive such as "Ardell Red-Gold Corrector" is a commercial product which can be added to shampoo, hair gel or leave-in conditioner so that it is a light shade of purple if you prefer not to use an unfamiliar product.

  • Kevin Murphy Blonde Angel Wash
  • Overtone Color Conditioners (purple and lavender shades)
  • Clairol Shimmer Lights Shampoo
  • One N Only Ultra Shiny Silver Shampoo
  • Fudge Clean Blonde Toning Shampoo (and conditioner)

2) Bluing. Mix a few drops of liquid laundry bluing into shampoo or conditioner for a fairly vibrant blue - or just a little into a leave-in conditioner or hair gel so it is "sky blue." This color of blue is very effective at canceling out yellow shades in white hair and also in toning down brassiness. It especially enhances cool shades of brunette and dark brown hair and can give blonde and light brown hair an ash (cool) tone. If purple doesn't help - blue (bluing) may work better.

1 and 2: a) Use food coloring instead. You can use a few drops of blue food coloring in shampoo or conditioner, or blue + red to create purple. If this mixture, or a purple shampoo almost works, but you still have some reddish shade appearing, add the same number of drops of green food coloring to the mixture (example: 1-2 drops each of blue, red, and green). Have a mirror handy. If you over-did the color additives, wash your hair a second time.

3) If minerals or metals (copper, iron for example) in water are discoloring your hair, try a distilled water wash. Warm some distilled water and use it for your entire wash and rinse. This can help diagnose whether water chemistry is a problem for your hair. If you notice a benefit from doing this, you might try combining it with one of the suggestions from #4 or #5 below to remove minerals from the hair, or with a purple shampoo or a bluing-added product from #1 or #2.

4) Hard water shampoos and treatments (commercial). Ion Hard Water shampoo, Ion Crystal Clarifying Treatment, Malibu Wellness Hard Water Weekly Demineralizer or Malibu Wellness C Blondes Weekly Brightener. These treatments can remove hard water minerals (calcium, magnesium) and other problem minerals from your hair. But if you have more white hairs than colored hairs or you have very light blonde hair or light highlights, you must do a test section first to be sure you will not get discoloration from the treatment.  These treatments combine mineral chelators such as EDTA or citric acid with mineral dissolvers and detergents to remove product build-up. Hard water can exacerbate product build-up.

5) Lemon juice treatment (Do It Yourself). This is shampoo-free. It may help remove mineral deposits and it may brighten blonde and light brown shades. Mix equal parts lemon juice (strain out any pieces of pulp) and distilled water. Apply this to your hair (put it in a squeeze-top bottle for easier application). Work it in well and cover your hair with a shower cap, treatment cap or wrap your hair in plastic. Leave this in your hair with some heat for 3-5 minutes, then rinse well and follow with cleanser/shampoo and conditioner.
The pH of this treatment is very low, so you may want to do a test-strand first to assure it is not too drying for your hair. The combination of citric and ascorbic acids help dissolve and trap (chelate) minerals and remove them from your hair. 

You can make mock lemon juice with 1.5% each citric acid and ascorbic acid in distilled water. This will also have a very low pH and need to be used on a test-strand to make sure it does not dry your hair.

6) If you notice yellowing after adding a new product, the product may be the problem. Discontinue use of the product for a while. If it is more than one product causing the problem, scan the ingredients of the offending products for ingredients they have in common. Those ingredients may be potential offenders. Oils, some preservatives, herbal ingredients and colorings can discolor hair, for example.

7) If you began using oils in your hair, or if you have been sweating more than usual - you may need to shampoo your hair more thoroughly. You may find that some plant oils cause yellowing and others don't. Or some parts of your hair may be more inclined to yellow than others.

8) Treat any scalp disease you may have (seborrheic dermatitis, for example) so the oils on your scalp have the right composition and are not over-produced. You may want to avoid tar shampoos (unless that is the only thing that works) because they can cause discoloration.

9) Manage porosity in your hair by using conditioners, protein as your hair tolerates it, handle your hair gently (don't brush vigorously, don't rub and scrub it with a towel - just blot and squeeze dry), use oil pre-wash treatments to prevent "waterlogging." See this post for more about managing porosity. 

10) Wear a hat, scarf of "UV buff" in the sun or use a UV protectant in hair products such as Cinnamidopropyltrimonium chloride, Quaternium-95 and Propanediol (they need to be together),  Polysilicone-15 or Benzophone-4.

  • Cinnamidopropyltrimonium chloride has been demonstrated in lab tests to prevent yellowing and increased brittleness in white hairs exposed to UV light (Gao and Bedell, Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2011. Volume 52, p.103-118)

11) For swimmers, use one of the mineral-removing treatments from #4 and #6 occasionally. If your pool allows, apply a little coconut oil or conditioner to your dry hair and wear a swim cap. The oil or conditioner protects the hair from pool water and the swim cap doesn't allow new water to constantly flow past and through your hair.

12) Other commercial products: 
  • Manic Panic "Virgin Snow" is a conditioning "white hair toner" (it's purple in the bottle) with no peroxide that is left on the hair for 15-30 minutes to correct discoloration. 
  • L'Oreal Colorist Secrets 'Brass Banisher" is a product that does contain peroxide for removing unwanted brassiness (red and yellow colors). If all else fails...