Imagine a woman in her 60s walking down the street with striking gray hair. Her strands get caught on a breeze, the sunlight hits them just so, and you realize that what you thought was simply gray is a blend of distinct colors: platinum, white, black — and, wait, mint green, sky blue and dusky purple, too.
Rachel Bodt, a colorist of the Red Door Spa & Salon in Manhattan, conjures this image to describe her take on fantasy hair color in already dreamy gray hair.
“When I think of gray hair, I do naturally imagine cool tones — shades of blue, purple and green,” Ms. Bodt said. “They melt in without clashing. It’s not like a big chunk of hot pink disrupting this beautiful salt and pepper.”
Over the last few years, fantasy hair colors (both pastels and brighter rainbow shades) have transitioned from runway esoterica to wearable-in-real-life looks. Despite making it to the mainstream, fantasy color, with its playfulness and vibrancy, may still be considered the domain of those under 40.
Here, though, is an illustration of why that take is a bad one.
“We’re exaggerating and drawing attention to gray hair, not hiding or covering it,” said Peter Gray, the hairstylist who collaborated with Ms. Bodt to transform the model JoAni Johnson’s hip-length gray mane. Elisa Flowers, a makeup artist, used a metallic and jewel-tone palette to complete our mermaid queen vibe.
Want to make the look your own? Their tips are below.
Pick a palette
Ms. Bodt chose iridescent abalone-shell colors — blues, greens, purples and cool pinks that range in intensity.
“I like having different depths of those tones because it mimics the highs and lows in salt and pepper hair,” she said. Multiple shades in one color family (like smoky blue and sapphire) will work, too. “You can dip a toe in this look by adding just one color,” Ms. Bodt said.
When looking for color inspiration, consider the tone of your own hair. Golden blond hair that’s graying would be pretty paired with sunset tones (apricot, rose gold and lilac), for example.
To dye or not to dye
Whether you choose to dye your hair or add colored extensions (we used extensions on Ms. Johnson), this look is likely a job for professionals. Unless your hair is overwhelmingly white, it will need to be bleached before adding the fantasy colors; otherwise they won’t show up.
If you want to do jewel tones on dark hair, you may not have to bleach, but the color will be subtle, almost like a tint. Fantasy colors are not permanent and fade after several washes.
Choose the right hair
Instead of dyeing the hair, you can add extensions. For a custom look, take color inspiration pictures to your colorist. Ms. Bodt dyed dozens of tape-in Easihair Pro extensions, which come in panels that are two to four inches wide (these panels are sometimes referred to as “tracks”).
The panels are secured on a section of hair by heating a semipermanent tape with a flat iron. They last several weeks and can be reused for another application.
Mr. Gray said that the hair type and design of the extensions have a big impact on your final look. If extensions are too thick at the base, where the strands are held together, they’ll appear bumpy when installed in the hair.
“I like Easihair Pro, specifically, because I think they have the best tape, and the best quality hair,” Mr. Gray said. “Their tracks are very fine, and that’s what you want.”
Ms. Johnson wears her hair straight, but extensions are available in all curl patterns and hair textures. If you plan to custom dye, look for “remy” hair, which is a type of extension in which the strands retain their scaled natural outer cuticle. (Easihair Pro extensions are remy.) In lower-quality extensions, this cuticle may not be intact, but its presence is necessary to get consistent dyeing results.
“Without the cuticle, the color doesn’t enter the strand consistently, and you get uneven color distribution as a result — a leopard-print effect,” Mr. Gray said.
To try mermaid queen hair with low commitment, add a precolored clip-in yourself. “It’s a good way to see if you like it before you spend money on expensive extensions,” Mr. Gray said.
Hair care for mermaids
Continue the experimentation with styling: an occasional blowout if your hair is naturally textured or adding curls with styling tools. But be cautious with heat because if overdone, it is damaging to gray hair.
“The absence of melanin makes gray hair drier, more porous and less malleable,” Mr. Gray said. Use styling tools and your blow-dryer on low heat. A dryer like the Dyson Supersonic ($ 400) dries the hair faster with lower heat and is the tool Mr. Gray often uses on gray hair. He also recommends using a conditioner that’s intensely moisturizing.
Gray hair yellows easily from environmental factors like pollution and hard water. Leonor Greyl Soin Repigmentant in Icy Blonde ($ 65) contains purple pigments that neutralize yellow in gray hair, while meadowfoam seed oil and rice proteins hydrate and fortify vulnerable gray strands.
Play up your new color
Yes, this is statement hair, but you can still add accessories. We layered on multiples of our favorites. At the base of the low, sleek ponytail are two Lelet NY Exes Glossy barrettes ($ 158 each); three Epona Valley Le Femme Hang Chain bobbies ($ 119 each) pin back one side of Ms. Johnson’s hair.
“Because of its color and tone, I love accessorizing gray hair with both silver and gold,” Mr. Gray said.
But you don’t have to spend a lot on accessories. Mr. Gray suggests exaggerating a simple accessory like black grosgrain ribbon for a cool effect. “Instead of using a couple feet, I’ll use a couple yards,” he said.
Ms. Flowers likes leaning into the mermaid vibe with color. She used a metallic eye shadow base, Giorgio Armani Eye Tint 9 – Cold Copper ($ 39), a liquid shadow that’s easily built up from a sheer glow to full metallic sheen. To amplify the eyes, she layered on a silvery green shadow from the Huda Beauty Obsessions Eyeshadow Palette in Emerald ($ 27), but dampened the shadow with makeup-setting spray to transform it to a slick finish.
Gray hair can wash out the skin, but adding color on the face with makeup helps.
“Color adds vitality,” Ms. Flowers said. “Try rose, lavender and blue on cool complexions and coral, olive and violet-red on warm to brighten your complexion.”