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...


  1. Great post! I am learning so much from your blog and really enjoying it. I have been on a quest to mesh CG with swimming, and I also color my hair with a semi-permanent, ammonia free color. Will the lemon juice strip my color?

    1. Sharon,
      Always do a test-strand with a new treatment. It is difficult to predict how things like citric acid will interact with hair without examining the hair - some people's hair becomes quite porous with hair color and some does not. Strand-test either a section of hair in a less-noticeable place or save shed hairs (from the shower, for example) and treat them. See what happens with the color. Color can be stripped when porosity is suddenly increased or just when hair is wetted. Citric acid seems to be less porosity-increasing than acids like vinegar - but if lemon juice diluted in half is still too strong, use the recipe on the blog post for swimmers (linked above) - about 1/8 teaspoon citric acid in 2 cups water as a rinse to remove chlorine odor and manage mineral build up.
      With swimming, I would focus on using a protectant (conditioner and a swim cap) and rinsing well after or rinsing and cleansing after.

    2. Thanks. A strand test is so smart. Not sure why I did not think of something so obvious:) I am going to save some shed hairs and try it. I always wet my hair, wear a swim cap, and cleanse after swimming. Just want to make sure I am cleaning out the chlorine. Do you have a certain shampoo you like to cleanse with after swimming, or do you mainly rely on diluted lemon juice/citric acid rinses?

    3. Hello Sharon,
      When you rinse your hair well after swimming, you rinse out the chlorine that could be actively damaging your hair. The smell lingers, though. When I swam regularly, I settled on citric acid rinses because that removed the chlorine odor most effectively and did not dry my hair which is not easily damaged by citric acid and is not color-treated, but is weakened and rendered tangly by chlorine. Different pools may use different forms of treatment so some pools turn lighter hair green or brassy fairly quickly and some pools never do that.
      I tried Ultra Swim shampoo, Malibu swim shampoo and several other swimmer's shampoos over the years and they never seemed to deodorize my hair or do anything but make it feel dry and straw-like. Some people find them effective at removing chlorine odor, but I did not. I think personal preference and individual hair matters a great deal, though.

    4. Thanks for the extra help and suggestions:) I am totally with you that the swim shampoos cause dry, straw-like hair.

  2. Hi i am new here i love hair coloring and i have been colorong my hair since 10 years mostly at salons but recently i have been experimenting at home. I got it right sometimes but other time i have failed just like recently . My natural color is very dark brown almost black i had it highlighted and colored light brown in August 2014 at a salon then in december i used box dye loreal casting number 500 which is a medium brown. Its a semi permenant dye and it faded like in a month then now in march 2015 i got box dye loreal excellence which is a permenant color in 9.1 which is light ash blonde and i added to the dye ardell's red gold color corrector which is suppose to remove all the brasiness and ugly orange color u get when u lighten dark hair and the result was a mess this is the first time i get such an ugly color its like dark brown orange color with light orange roots. So usually i color my hair using garnier color number 7.1 so what when wrong this time was it the ardell color corrector or was it coz i used a very light shade which 9.1 ? Or was it coz of the loreal semi permenat dye that i used in december ?

  3. Hello Heba Ihab,
    I don't think I can answer this question. But I can point you to some reviews of Ardell Red Gold Corrector on Makeup Alley that talk about adding it to the toner and how much to use, how purple the toner will look, and whether Ardell Unred is a better product. You'll need to copy this link and paste it into the browser address bar:

    It may have been an issue of needing to leave the toner on longer or using more Ardell Red Gold Corrector or you may need a different correcting toner. It is difficult to lift a lot of color from hair and not end up with yellowish or reddish shades.

    Check out the post in this blog about "managing elasticity and porosity" - some of those treatments may help your hair resist any discoloration from your water and the environment.

  4. Help! I have searched the internets and you have been the most helpful, but still....My hair is boy-short. The hair in front is streaky white and salt-and-pepper (I was originally a dark ash brown). About one inch from the roots, it is yellow, and then another inch, where it is that long, starts to become rusty. I thought it might be from the water, so I put a Water Sprite shower head and filter on my shower. I tried the Malibu packet and it made my hair much more orange. I was using the daily shampoo and conditioner, but I think maybe any citric acid might be the culprit. I am on no new medications and my thyroid was tested a couple of months ago and it's okay with Synthroid--the same dose I have taken for years. Blue/violet shampoos and conditioners make the white roots whiter, but seem to have little effect on the yellow/orange bits. I thought it might be the sun, but since it is hotter than heck here, I only go out right at sunrise. I wear a hat in cooler weather, and the white one I got this spring has rusty sweat stains at the front hairline. I use no colored hair products, except the violet/blue ones. I don't go around any smoke. This only started maybe 18 months ago. Same municipal water, same meds, same diet, no heat styling. Any ideas?

    1. Kbfenner, do you know whether you have iron in your water? Orange discoloration is often iron and a Sprite filter won't remove all the iron when there is a lot present. Municipal water supplies do vary over time and season and sometimes they switch water sources based on availability or treatment protocol based on chemistry and that might cause a change in the amount of iron or in the water and how it's reacting with your hair and other things in the water and your filter. Sometimes municipalities flush out water systems and that creates a pulse of iron that is over in a few days, but remains with our hair.

      Sprite recommends "flushing" the filter for 1-2 minutes at the start of each shower, or at least keep your hair out of the spray.

      If you try any new treatments, try a patch test first - just an inch wide or so (muster all the patience you can). Sometimes things like the Malibu Hard Water Demineralizer need to be used more than once for a good result. Ion Crystal Clarifying treatment might work instead - and you might use the Ion or the Malibu with a little *heat* for a few minutes - but do a test patch first!

      For that matter, when you use products to remove discoloration - if you do the entire wash using distilled water you won't find minerals in your water messing up the result.

      Or you might need to try a vinegar rinse instead - dilute the vinegar with distilled water. Different acids interact with iron differently, for some people vinegar rinses work quite well. You might have to use a high concentration of vinegar to get it to work, but best to dilute it at least 50:50 with distilled water.

      I find that for red/orange discoloration, for which I use a rinse with ascorbic/citric acid combination, I need to use heat to speed up the reaction of the ingredients - hair covered with plastic with gentle heat applied so everything stays moist and in contact with the treatment. Heat may be necessary for your hair too.

      But it's also really important to manage porosity - even in short hair which you might no expect to be very porous- by using oil pre-wash treatments with coconut oil or sunflower oil and leaving it on for several hours or all day or overnight (just enough oil for extra shine) and use protein in products like conditioner if your hair tolerates protein. This is good prevention for discoloration beneath the cuticle. Hot sun makes hair more porous - but if you're not out in the hottest part of the day, then you can't blame the sun. Keep trying different things, I hope one of these works.
      The suggestions in #12 above (Manic Panic Virgin Snow toner in particular) might be an "if all else fails" solution for your orange bits. But finding out about iron in the water and which treatment to use regularly to keep your color what it should be, and managing porosity all have a role.

      Good luck!

  5. It's going to be hard to do a patch test when it's only along my hairline in a two inch wide strips, lol. I thought that the Malibu made my hair more orange, not less. Argh.
    I think managing the porosity is the clue. I am afraid that any chelating will only increase the porosity---did I mention my hair is truly baby fine, to boot. It is only on the wavy bits above the temple, the ones that get poufy when I have had bangs. I can easily do coconut oil overnight. I can wait for it to grow out if I can stop it from staining in the first place! I will also wash the rest of me first, then my hair!
    Do you think the citric acid in shampoos and conditioners can make white hair orange like the Malibu pak did, or is it not likely to be enough? I have searched for actual lists of ingredients--oils, 'cones, etc., on reputable sites that may cause discoloration, but can only find general references.

    1. I know - patch testing on short hair is tricky - maybe a small lock at your hairline. I'm a terrible patch-tester, I'm far too impatient.
      Chelating can increase porosity - especially if the products are low pH.
      Citric acid shouldn't turn white hair orange unless there is something that oxidizes orange, and that is usually minerals or hair color as far as I know. The Malibu treatment might have increased the orange or it may have removed some other discoloration, leaving only the orange behind. So if Malibu Wellness Weekly Demineralizer increased the orange (and here are the ingredients: Glucose, ascorbic acid, disodium EDTA, Sodium Gluconate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Xanthan Gum, Citric Acid and Betaine) then you might want to avoid ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and citric acid.

      EDTA is a non-acidic chelator and it can be found in some clarifying products - Ion Swimmer's Shampoo is an example. Acids and bases can cause color changes (as can hard water) but EDTA is just a chelator to prevent the minerals from interacting with your hair - no acids or bases. This shampoo might be good for reducing build-up occasionally. Suave Clarifying Shampoo and Conditioner also contain chelating ingredients. Look for Disodium EDTA or Tetrasodium EDTA in the ingredients of clarifying products.

      I knew somebody who spent a summer in an area with high-iron water and her blonde hair turned orange from the water.
      You may want to call (or check online- some water treatment facilities will list iron levels and some won't) your water treatment facility and ask them about iron and also whether any lines had been flushed when you first noticed this problem. It might help to also note whether you have any similar orange or rusty staining around your sinks or drains.

      To manage porosity, there are some tips here (copy and paste the link: Fine and medium-width hair can usually tolerate protein and that helps manage porosity also.

      Depending on the result and how often you wash your hair, oil pre-wash treatments can be done weekly or every 2 weeks. If you get a good result, repeat the treatment when the good result fades. Protein can be used almost daily if your hair tolerates it well - amino acids, hydrolyzed silk, keratin and collagen proteins tend to get along with many hair widths. Hydrolyzed proteins when over-used can cause hair to be stiff and tangly or rough - or overly soft and limp. If that happens, use proteins in products less often.
      Best wishes - WS

    2. Wow--thanks so much! I did the coconut oil overnight. Not too much for my hair.
      I don't get the iron stains on my plumbing--I know places that do, but they use well water. I wonder if, since my city gets its water from a river, and our rivers are known for their tannins (another nearby river (Edisto) is one of the longest black water rivers in the world---because of the tannins leaching from oaks that line it), if this is tannins. I only noticed the staining after I stopped using a filtered shower, and it has come back constantly for at least a year, even with the filter. Maybe the Ion shampoo.
      As a side note, I also have supersensitive skin, and I note that most shampoos now use methylisothiazilinone (or whatever it is) or some similar compound in lieu of parabens. I read on Cosmetics Cop that this can be a sensitizing ingredient, and since the back of my neck gets itchy....oy!

    3. Oh boy, tannins? To keep those out of your shower water would require some sort of whole-house, tannin-removing filter. Or reverse osmosis (I assume that would be adequate, if not equally pricey).
      Shower filters do a good job for some things, but they're limited because of the high flow and their small size and the heat of the water.

      Methylisothiazolinone can definitely make some people's skin irritated or itchy, so can formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and phenoxyethanol (preservative). There are other clarifying shampoos with EDTA that might agree with your skin.

      I hope you can find something that works for you!

  6. Thanks so much! I just tried the Ion shampoo today--still have orange-y tips. I'm going to work on your porosity suggestions, b/c I guess that's the best way to block stains!!
    Gosh, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with an English major!

  7. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

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  8. If you've gone grey and are wearing your grey/silver/white hair in its natural color, DO NOT USE KERATIN PRODUCTS. They will turn your hair an ugly, sickly yellowish color. I have naturally curly/wavy (and yes, frizzy) hair, and I lucked out - it turned a gorgeous silvery color when I went grey. I wear it longer, so I went in for a mild keratin treatment to keep it under control during the summer. I went in silver and came out dingy yellow. The salon owner tried to tell me I was imagining it. Then he tried to sell me on how I got a free haircolor along with my keratin treatment! I'm not blaming the salon for the tinge, apparently it goes along with the keratin. I AM blaming them for not warning me in advance, and lying to try to minimize the issue. This keratin side-effect has me down, because even over-the-counter keratin products really do help keep frizz at bay, and keep my hair straight and shiny for days if I decide to flat-iron it. But the ugly dingy yellow color negates those benefits. If your hair still has pigment, lucky you, these products are great. Wish they'd been around back in the day, lol. But I love the beautiful silver color my hair turned naturally. No more keratin for me, sigh.

    1. Hi Aunty Borg,
      I'm so sorry you had that bad experience. I wonder if the coloring service offered was a "toner." There are toners that use purple or purplish-blue hues to cancel out yellow casts. Stylists use longer-lasting ones. But you can also get them to use at home in conditioners. Overtone is one brand that sells a "Silver" and also a Purple daily conditioner or deep treatment that you can use to manage color. I hear they have very good customer service.
      And there are the purple shampoos like Clairol Shimmer lights which can also help somewhat.

      If you want a keratin service in the future, you might ask the stylist if you can come in to have a test-strand of hair in a less-noticeable place done in advance to see if different brands of keratin treatment might be less likely to discolor your hair. I hope things improve for you soon! ~W

  9. I have silver hair and notice some yellowing especially around my face and so use a purple shampoo etc (it works somewhat). I am considering a vitamin C shower filter but am wondering if the risks might outweigh the benefits... All of the filters look yellow. Any thoughts?

    1. Hello Shana, this response is quite delayed, I have had difficulty getting the comments to load. I have not heard of vitamin C shower filters. I cannot readily find what the filtration media is - if anything. I doubt such a filter would add so much vitamin C that the pH would be too low - that would irritate skin, eyes and nose and undoubtedly lead to lawsuits. Which means I'm skeptical that it does much for hair.
      If you sleep with your hair loose, skin products (lotions, serums, toners) could cause yellowing of the hair around your face - sleeping with your hair wrapped in a silky scarf or secured loosely off your face might help if that were the case.

  10. Thanks for the interesting info. I am 60 years old. My hair was white/blonde when I was little and gradually darkened to a medium blonde with Sun-bleached highlights as I got older. Now my hair is turning pale blonde instead of white. It's not yellow though. I like it this way. If it eventually ends up white, that'll be ok too.

  11. Hi, first time reading blog. I have silver-gray hair and it's turning yellow on top and sides of my head. I work in the yard a lot and swim about 3 times a week. I do use a cap but my hair still little wet. I used swimmers shampoo and shampoo for gray hair. Nothing helps. I don't want to use clolo in my hair my because my silver grsy is natural and pretty. I tried Apple cider vinegar and baking soda, and really didn'thair help. It made my hair course and dry. Help help....what do need I to use.

    1. Hello Ellen - I'm sorry you're having this problem. I know that some products can cause discoloration - those that contain darker oils or coffee extract, for example. Shampoos that irritate the skin or encourage oil production (that's a byproduct of irritation, or a side effect of shampoos like Selsun) can encourage discoloration. If you have hard water (check with your water treatment facility, or test it with test strips made for aquariums or swimming pools) - a hard water shampoo like Malibu Wellness or Ion Hard Water Shampoo might be more helpful than the swimmer's shampoos. ---
      Adding a couple drops of bluing to some water to use as a final rinse (make it "sky blue" or a shade darker) or added to your shampoo (which can be a little darker than the rinse) might help cancel out the yellow, visually. Sometimes blue works better than purple - like most silver-hair shampoos. --- A citric acid rinse might work better than vinegar if minerals are involved, it can trap minerals in a different way than vinegar. Citric acid is a chelating agent. Use heat with such a rinse - it helps the treatment have access to discoloration beneath the cuticle. --- A more-concentrated treatment like Malibu Hard Water treatment (in the little packets) or Ion Crystal Clarifying treatment could be helpful also. --- Follow any acidic treatment with plenty of conditioner and leave it on a little longer than usual - splash a little water into the conditioner to help distribute it well. --- If all that fails, then more "color-correction" may help. Overtone is a brand of conditioner that is made for brightly-colored hair, but also works to tone yellow or brassy shades in silver hair - I think the purple is used. --- A color toning might be done by a hair stylist to remove brassiness - In some cases it is a "gloss" and not hair dye.
      Managing porosity helps a lot, whether that means using protein treatments or oil treatments or both. Color-free oils are coconut and babassu. Lighter-colored oils include grapeseed, sweet almond, meadowfoam seed. I hope that helps! -W