"Thou shalt not grow your hair past your shoulders after age 40 — and definitely not after 50."
The time has come to rethink this time-honored, etched-in-stone beauty commandment. Full disclosure: I have long brunette hair — as in halfway down my back. It’s cut in long layers, it’s healthy, and it has never been colored. At 50, I’m just beginning to show my silvers, and I’m most definitely not cutting it.
Why should I? Science tells us that humans are wired to find certain physical traits sexier than others because they reflect a person's health, fertility and, from an evolutionary standpoint, a capacity to breed strong offspring that will survive. These traits include a full lip in women and a muscular neck in men. "Similarly," says Dr. Susan Lin, a San Mateo-based dermatologist who's board certified in anti-aging medicine, "having beautiful long and full hair is associated with vitality."
Lately, the more I look around, the more good company I find myself in.
Long, Beautiful Hair …
I was flipping through a fashion magazine recently and came to an admiring stop when I saw a photo of Franca Sozzani, a strong woman comfortable in her own skin. The editor in chief of Vogue Italia is arguably one of the world’s most revered style setters, and at 62 she flaunts a full head of long, silvery-blond pre-Raphaelite locks.
Besides being sexy as hell, long hair past a certain age also attests to a brainy defiance. Take Gloria Steinem, the 78-year-old feminist icon who still looks great with her trademark tousled hairstyle. And 56-year-old Maria Shriver confidently flaunts her luxurious long locks.
“If your hair is healthy and you take care of it, there’s no reason you can’t grow it long,” says Joe Vitale, owner of New York City’s K Salon. Vitale believes that the top of the bra strap is the perfect — and chicest — length because it looks polished and put together, and you can still pull it up or back in a ponytail. (Any longer, he says, and you run the risk of looking like a throwback to the '70s.)
(MORE: Beautiful Hair at Any (Every!) Age)
There are plenty of styles that look good, says Adolfo Pliego, a stylist at the Chris Chase salon in New York City — like long layers, which make your hair look thicker; or one length with layers in the front; or a sexy bang to the side. “We may not be able to redo the skin, he adds, but we can do wonders with a nice haircut, blow-dry and flattering makeup.”
How to Maintain Healthy Long Hair
Want to grow your hair, but you’re not sure if it’s the right look for you? Here are some things to take into consideration before you go to great lengths.
Make the most of thin hair: Don’t put in a lot of layers, and by no means let your stylist use a razor when cutting it, Vitale says. Both of these techniques will reduce the weight of hair, which is the opposite of what you want to accomplish.
“You can make your hair look thicker by cutting the hair blunt and adding square layers,” says Vitale, who adds that using a volumizing shampoo (and a volumizing spray before blow-drying) will make hair look and feel thicker. If you have very fine hair, adding any type of color to it will make it feel thicker because dye coats the individual hair shafts.
Giving an assist to dyed hair: “The simpler your color process, the less you need to do to maintain it,” Pliego says. More complex color, like single-process with highlights, requires more maintenance. This is true for everyone, of course, but it’s especially true for longer hair. (The more hair to match, the more effort involved.) For less maintenance still, consider bleach-free lowlights, in the same shade as or darker than your own color.
“It really is an optical illusion," Vitale says. "The darker the hair, the more light that bounces off it and the shinier and thicker it looks.” He’s not saying we should dye our hair blue-black, but he is saying that a color one or two shades darker not only is more natural-looking, but it gives the hair more dimension and thus the appearance of being thicker — always a plus for long-haired lasses.
Extend time between colorings: With longer hair, you can get away with fewer salon visits, since two months' of growth isn't as noticeable as with shorter hair. When it comes to stretching out your stylist appointments, there are products on the market that can help you match the new growth to the rest of your hair. But choose wisely — especially when it comes to color pencils or crayons. “Unfortunately, sometimes crayons can really screw up your color. Don’t do it too much, or it won’t work,” Vitale says. “And be careful about your selection: Always go one shade lighter than the color you have for the most natural look."
Pliego suggests products by Revlon and L’Oreal that are like mascara for the hair. “The coverage only lasts until you wash your hair,” he says, “and you should apply it on your part or on the places where the gray is most visible, not on the entire head.” Vitale also recommends Roux's Color Replenishing Masque, which washes out after three to five shampoos. Available in eight shades, it helps to revive color and add shine.
(MORE: Real Shades of Gray)
Gone silver? If you’ve embraced your gray and want to keep it in tip-top condition, try Pure Silver Shampoo and Conditioner from Philip Kingsley. It’s formulated to brighten all shades of gray and keep yellow tones at bay.
Keep hair looking its best: Two great ways to keep long hair looking healthy are eating a balanced diet and using a pH-balanced shampoo, Vitale says. For hair that’s lost its luster and won’t shine no matter what, he recommends getting a professional clear gloss, a demi-permanent type of color that adds sheen and makes hair look thicker. (It should last six to eight weeks.) Or try an at-home vinegar rinse.
Clean and condition: When it comes to shampooing, twice a week is more than plenty, Pliego says. "Natural oils develop in between washings and help keep your hair healthy."
To add body, especially to chemically treated hair, use a gentle shampoo (i.e., one you could use every day — though you shouldn't), and apply conditioner only to your ends. Pliego recommends a deep-conditioning treatment, like the ones from Kerastase, every two weeks. If you suffer from frizz, salon keratin treatments can help (or, to a lesser degree, shampoos that contain keratin). And be sure to trim your hair every eight to 10 weeks to keep it looking its best.
Hair plays such an important role in how we feel about our looks and ourselves. Life is about growth — don’t cut yourself short.
Mary Bemis, founding editor of Organic Spa magazine, is an authority and consultant on beauty, spas and green living.