How to Touch Up Gray Roots DIY While Traveling or Living Abroad

Planning for long-term travel or living abroad demands organization.  There are many everyday situations that we need to readjust, especially in a new culture.  One of those is for those of us who need to color our hair as we are not ready to go gray yet.

When you are out of your element, sometimes your appearance is not of the greatest importance as people have never seen you before, so they don’t realize that your gray roots have grown.  But you recognize it every time you look in the mirror.   

I am not a hair professional.  For someone who has to dye her roots every three to four weeks, I have learned many tips along the way.  Each culture does it differently, and you can quickly adapt if you plan accordingly.  I now use this same method for hair color when I am back at home too.  It saves me so much money!

Understanding Gray Roots

Why Hair Turns Gray

Gray hair is genetic or inherited.  I always heard that gray hair comes from your mother’s side and my mother was fully gray when she was very young.  And the same goes for me and my sisters.  While gray hair is a natural part of aging, it can also increase with medical conditions or stress.  As you age, your hair follicles produce less melanin, the pigment that gives your hair its color. As a result, your hair loses its color and turns gray, silver, or white.

Going gray or Not?

This is such a personal question or preference.  You will go gray when you are ready.  Until then, there are options to help you when you need to do some touch-ups for your natural hair color.  This is sometimes easier when you are in your home country and understand the process, and it is part of your regular routine for haircuts and hair color.  But don’t worry. I have been coloring my hair for years while traveling and living abroad.  I have had many great experiences and many mishaps and experimented with many ways to avoid going gray.  I’d like to share a few tips.

How Often to Touch Up

I need to color my gray roots every three to four weeks.  I know some people who can wait 4-6 weeks.  Those were the days!  It is a personal preference and depends on how you feel about it.  No judgment here.

I color the roots.  I have tried some products that do quick touch-ups, but I didn’t use them very often.  I feel I got the system down, but these products or quick touch-ups can help.  I will be honest that sometimes I envision the elderly man with a black liquid dripping on his face after getting caught in the rain and his “quick fix touch-up” came out.  Maybe that is why I don’t use them.

But there are root touch-up sprays and powders.  Also, people have used eyeshadow and mascara.  And Dry Shampoo can also be used to cover up gray roots. Sprinkle a little dry shampoo on your roots and blend it in with your fingers. It will help to absorb any oil and make your roots look less gray.  Whatever works for you!

Preparation Before Travel

I take everything I need to color my hair when I travel.  It is so easy to do and cost-efficient.  

If you have gotten your hair dyed enough, which means if you have to color your roots frequently, then you can do this.  Sometimes we think we don’t have the experience or knowledge, but it is possible with research and consulting professionals.

Choosing the Right Hair Dye

When selecting a hair dye for your gray roots, I always start with questions for my hairdresser.  I have sat in a salon chair for many, many hours over the years.  Sometimes they can’t say exactly what color or what product they are using, but you can get an idea.  I first started with the boxes of semi-permanent hair color (or drugstore hair dye or box dye), and then I figured out how to use the permanent dyes that are used at salons. 

So the options available include permanent hair dyes, semi-permanent hair dyes, and temporary root touch-up sprays. Permanent hair dyes are the most long-lasting, but they require a bit more effort to apply. Semi-permanent hair dyes (I call them the boxes or temporary hair dye) are easier to apply but don't last as long. Temporary root touch-up sprays are the easiest to apply, but they only last until your next shampoo.

When using the permanent dyes or what is used in salons, the key for me has been getting a dye with the correct number (referring to color) that feels good and has fewer chemicals.  I also have had to deal with the reactions to the smell caused by some of the dyes when dying my hair myself.  Especially when living with others.  These factors have helped me evolve my selection of hair colors and brands to use.

Consider using henna or other plant-based hair dyes if you prefer a more natural approach. These options are often gentler on the hair and scalp than chemical dyes. However, the color may not be as long-lasting or intense as traditional dyes.

Also, in Latin America, some salons don’t have the dye in stock.  The hairdresser tells you to bring the dye with you, and they will apply it.  When faced with this circumstance, you are forced to be more active in understanding the colors and what is needed for the application process.  Usually, nearby the hair salon is a beauty store that sells all kinds of dyes.  This has led to trial and error, but with the help of some hairdressers telling me to get two shades to mix together, one especially for gray roots and the other to tone the color down while not looking orange in the sun, I feel it gave me lots of knowledge of what works for me.  This is not usually possible in the USA, as in many salons, the professionals will only apply products that the salon has.  

Packing Essentials for Coloring Your Roots

This is exactly what I use to color my roots:

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Hair dye:  . I buy three tubes at least, depending on where I plan to be.  That is three months' worth.  If I know I am in a country where hair dye is more accessible or, contrary, less available, I will buy more or less.

Creme Developer - I use 25 ml or so.   So I buy one bottle to have.

Gray Cover:   I buy a box of 12 and take as many as I may need as I use 1 vial at a time

Bowl   I never leave home without it.

Applicator Brush    You will become an expert in applying the dye!

Plastic bag:  I get a garbage bag and rip part of it for my head and arms to put it on, and it covers my clothes.

Gloves:  A must!  I pack a few pairs.  If I plan to have a friend help me with the back of my hair, if it is longer, I pack a few extra pairs.


My Color-My-Roots Steps

Again, I am not a professional hair colorist or professional stylist.  Consult with a professional before using products or applying dyes.  This is just the method I use.  Also, read the instructions on the package you buy and follow accordingly.

  1. I start with unwashed hair, meaning I haven’t washed my hair in a day or two. 
  2. Put on my garbage bag.  Usually underneath, depending on the climate, I have a zip-up sweatshirt or fleece.  Whatever you feel comfortable in.
  3. Put on my gloves.  
  4. Mix the Hair dye in the Bowl with the Applicator Brush.
  5. Add Creme Developer.   Usually, the ratio is 1:1, but I use less, as it depends on the developer and the hair dye.  It is best to follow the directions that are given. I put enough in for a light paste.
  6. Mix the above.
  7. Add 1 vial of Gray Cover.  Keep mixing. Usually, if professionals use this, they put it on after you have rinsed, washed, and conditioned your hair.  So at the end of the treatment.  But just a few years ago, a hairdresser told me it is okay to mix it right in with the dye and developer. This is what the instructions on the box of Gray Cover also indicate. It works well for me.  
  8. Put a paper towel on the sink to cover the area when I apply the dye in case it drips.
  9. Put Vaseline on my face on the hairline.
  10. Start applying the dye.  I start with the front section in the root area.  You also have most likely seen how your hairdresser applies the dye to you, or better yet, you can check out tutorials on Youtube.
  11. Set the time.  In my case, I wait 45 minutes.
  12. Clean the bowl and applicator brush to get the dye out.
  13.  After 45 minutes, I rinse the dye off in the shower.  Then I wash my hair and use conditioner.  I use cold water, which helps set the dye.
  14. Done!

Dye on Your Face

To avoid dye on my face, I put Vaseline on my hairline before I start.  I have also had hairstylists scrub my hairline with my hair itself to get any dye off my face.  

Even though you may have gray on your hairline, don’t go overboard on the edges so it is all over your face.

How Long to Leave the Dye In?

The amount of time you leave the dye in will depend on the type of dye you're using and the shade of your hair. Follow the instructions on the package and set a timer to ensure you don't leave the dye in too long.  Since I have a lot of gray, I keep the dye in 45 minutes, which professionals say is the maximum time it should be in.  

How Long Does it Take to Dye Hair?

I need about 15 - 20 minutes to apply the color to my roots, and then I wait another 45 minutes with the dye in. This is the recommended time for covering up gray hair.  I then shower, rinse the dye, and shampoo and condition my hair.  I usually plan on an hour and a half.  It may take extra time to get the hang of it.

Coloring Your Roots in Different Cultures

How Much Does it Cost to Dye Hair

Coloring your roots yourself is so much cheaper than going to a salon in most countries. Going to a salon can be cheaper abroad than in your home country.  While traveling, even if I can go to a salon and have a hairstylist apply the dye, it usually is just a few dollars. 

Finding Local Hair Products

Finding hair care products that work for your hair type can be challenging, but often not.  It depends on where you are.  Years ago, I had difficulty finding a lighter-colored dye for my hair in Asia, as the dyes that people used sparingly were for dark hair.  Nowadays you can find many products in most places.  It just depends on your willingness to figure it out in that culture. 

Understanding How Salons Abroad Work

If you go to a salon abroad, it may have different procedures and techniques than those you're used to at home. Research the salon's reputation and ask for local recommendations before booking an appointment. Make sure you communicate clearly with the stylist to ensure you get the results you want.  Bring a photo of what you want if you don’t speak the language.  If not, you will probably leave the salon with the same hairstyle as your hairstylist.  I speak from experience!

Adapting to Water Quality

Water quality can vary significantly from country to country and can affect the health and appearance of your hair. Hard water, for example, can cause dryness and damage. A water filter for your showerhead or using a clarifying shampoo to help remove buildup can help.

Precautions and Tips

Here are some tips to help you touch up your gray roots safely and effectively:

Skin Allergy Test

Before using any hair dye, you must perform a patch test to check if you are allergic to any ingredients. To do this, apply a small amount of the hair dye to a patch of skin on your inner arm or behind your ear and leave it for 48 hours. Do not use the product if you experience redness, itching, or swelling.

Strand Test

A strand test is another crucial step when using hair dye, especially if you want to achieve a specific color result or try a new product. A strand test involves applying the hair dye to a small section of your hair (usually a hidden or inconspicuous area) and observing how the color develops and how your hair reacts to the dye.

Protecting Your Skin

When applying hair dye, protecting your skin from staining is important. You can do this by applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly or Vaseline around your hairline and ears. This will prevent the dye from coming into contact with your skin and staining it.

Dealing with Spills

Accidents can happen, and if you accidentally spill hair dye on your clothes or towels, it is essential to act quickly. Blot the stain with a clean cloth or paper towel to remove any excess dye. Then, rinse the affected area with cold water and apply a stain remover. Avoid using hot water as it can set the stain.

What's the Best Way to Care for Color-Treated Gray Hair?

When it comes to caring for color-treated gray hair, there are a few things you should keep in mind for the health of your hair. Here are some tips for the best results.  

Use a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner.

Sulfates can be harsh on color-treated hair, so using a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner is important. Look for products specifically designed for color-treated hair, as they will be gentler and less likely to strip your hair of its color.

Avoid hot water

Hot water can also damage color-treated hair, so it's best to avoid it as much as possible. Instead, use warm water to wash your hair, and rinse with cool water to help seal the cuticle and lock in moisture.

Protect your hair from the sun.

The sun's UV rays can fade your hair color and cause damage, so it's important to protect your hair when you're spending time outdoors. Wear a hat or scarf to shield your hair from the sun, or use a hair product that contains SPF.  This is essential the closer to the equator you are or where the sun is very intense.

Get regular trims

Regular trims are important for keeping your hair healthy and preventing split ends. If you're coloring your hair, trims can also help remove any damaged or faded ends and keep your color fresh.  If I need my hair cut, I try to do so before I color my roots.  The length of your hair can make a difference in how easy it is to apply the dye. When I have long hair, it takes me longer.

Deep Conditioning Mask

Due to frequent hair coloring treatments, it is good to get hair masks every few months. This can help your hair which can be damaged from the dye.

Each Time it Will Get Easier

When it comes to your roots, the first time you dye your own hair is awkward, but afterward, it takes less time as you get the hang of it.  As a general rule, it is a good idea to practice before you leave for your trip. 

If you are going to get a new hair color or color your whole head, it is best to go to a hair salon.  A hair stylist can give you better results for a color change or the perfect color for you.  But if you are just going to do the roots, you can learn to carefully do it yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1:  How much time do I need to color my gray roots?

A1:  If you are doing it yourself, it can take about an hour and a half.

Q2:  What is the processing time of hair dye?

A2:  The processing time of hair dye refers to the time the dye needs to stay on your hair to achieve the desired result. This time period allows the dye to penetrate the hair shaft and interact with the natural pigments in your hair. The specific processing time can vary depending on factors such as the type of hair dye, the desired color change, your hair's natural color, and the brand's instructions.

Q3:  What are the benefits of just coloring the roots to get rid of gray hair?

A3:  Coloring only the roots to cover gray hair has several benefits, especially if you aim to maintain a natural look or your existing color and minimize the impact on the rest of your hair.