“It shouldn’t only be urban gay men who color their hair,” says Carl Sandler, founder of True Sons, a first-of-its-kind hair dye foam launched earlier this summer. A serial entrepreneur, Sandler co-founded a biotech incubator developing groundbreaking science for cancer and HIV patients. He’s also been regularly featured on HuffPost Live as an expert in postmillennial gay hookup culture, having designed and built sites like Gay.com, Daddyhunt.com and the MISTER dating app. It was actually Sandler’s father who first noticed how gray his beard had become after watching one of those segments and suggested dyeing it with Just for Men, as he’d been doing for years.
The younger Sandler, now bald and bearded at age 46, recalls walking into a local Duane Reade pharmacy in New York City and discreetly asking a clerk where they kept the Just For Men. Upon returning home, as directed, he combined one line of the “color base tube” with one line of the “color developer” and applied generously. Five minutes later, the obsidian reflection in the mirror horrified him.
After years of growing progressively grayer, Sandler’s beard was now suddenly — and unnaturally — oil-slick black. That’s because, as Beverly Hills hair stylist Lauri Fraser tells me, if you leave Just for Men on for too long, “you’re likely to end up with a lovely shade of ‘I hate this color.’” “I looked like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof,” Sandler says of his sooty bristles. Too embarrassed to leave the house, he began commiserating with friends and was stunned to learn how many other drugstore cowboy-chemists were dyeing their hair at home. The key, they explained, was diluting the solution with three times more developer than dye. Others suggested leaving it on for only a minute rather than the prescribed five. It seemed absurd to Sandler that he needed to bastardize a product in order to find a natural result. So instead, he shaved his beard entirely and began searching for a better way to mask the gray — as men have done for millenia.
Ancient Romans colored their gray hair with a mixture of ashes, boiled walnut shells and leeches applied with a lead-coated comb dipped in vinegar (the lead salts darkened the hair over time); Egyptians slathered their scalp with a lead-based hair dye combined with slaked lime (they had much shorter life spans); Ancient Greeks, preferring lighter hair, concealed their gray with a combination of wood ash and lye soap (which if left on too long caused hair to break at the touch); medieval men soaked their hair in a seemingly delicious combination of honey, white wine, calendine roots, olive-madder, cumin seed, saffron and box shavings (?); and throughout the 18th century, most European men actually added the gray by powdering their hair to neutralize head lice (and smell better).
Of all of man’s historical anti-aging camouflages, it was the Romans’ lead combs that most closely resemble modern-day anti-graying measures. In 1962, Combe Incorporated, an American personal-care company founded by Ivan Combe, created the previously nonexistent “men’s hair color” category with the introduction of Grecian Formula 16, a product that, like the Ancient Romans’ combs, gradually dyed away gray hair by depositing lead acetate upon hair shafts. Despite this turning touch-up jobs into hazmat operations, for more than a decade, insecure American men flocked to the magical, water-like product that promised to eliminate the gray without anyone noticing, “not even your wife!”
Grecian Formula 16 even helped Pete Rose “play younger.”
In 1987, Combe launched Just for Men, a next-generation Grecian Formula that remains the world’s top-selling, most famous male hair color brand. Also recognizing the enormous potential of the burgeoning men’s home hair-color market, Clairol released Men’s Choice in the mid-1990s to compete with Just for Men. There’s a sizeable consumer base for what they’re offering. More specifically, most men get their first gray hairs around the age of 30. More than 40 percent of Americans will have some gray by age 40. By 50, half of a man’s hairs will be gray. And so, according to New Jersey market research firm Multi-Sponsor Surveys, nearly 15 percent of American men ages 50 to 64 now color their hair.
“Men color gray hair because we’re obsessed with appearing strong,” says grooming expert Craig Whitely, aka “Craig the Barber.” “When the gray reveals itself, it reveals man’s mortality.” Most guys, though, are uncomfortable walking into a salon, Whitley tells me, let alone admitting insecurities to a stylist. “That’s why home coloring products like Just for Men will always sell.” Because as ex-Met Keith Hernandez and ex-Knick Walt Frazier have told guys in Just For Men commercials over the last two decades, “There’s no play for Mister Gray!”
Marketers have long cultivated an attitude that a little gray may makes a man look distinguished, but too much makes him look extinguished. For example, another Combe product — Touch of Gray, first sold in drug stores in 2008 for $8 — was designed to specifically meet the needs of male Baby Boomers “who like the respect that their gray hair gives them but want to reduce the amount of gray so that others can see their vitality,” according to information from the brand.
Sandler, however, insists Touch of Gray isn’t considered a serious product within the world of hair color since it’s essentially a thick, speckled gray dye. “Touch of Gray is like oil paint,” he clarifies. “True Sons is like watercolor.”
Most artificial hair colors (the kind women usually use) work in two stages. First, they use a bleach-like chemical to destroy the melanin so it becomes lighter. Second, they add chemical pigments to make the hair a different color. Some hair colors, like Just For Men, only add dye on top of your existing natural hair color. So if you have a mixture of gray hairs and dark hairs, the gray hairs will pick up the new color but the dark hairs won’t. That’s how Just For Men can say that it “only targets gray hair.”
True Sons, on the other hand, uses “dye intermediates” activated by contact with oxygen. Sandler also decided that the product needed to be a foam. The process of mixing multiple ingredients on a plastic tray with a plastic brush was maddening, he says, and he felt it needed to be “as simple as shaving” — i.e., squirt it into your hand, apply it to your hair, wash it off a couple minutes later. As such, he hired a chemist and manufacturer with dye expertise to create a foam that smelled nice, was easy to apply and didn’t stain your skin. It’s not nearly as strong as Just For Men — so you’ll need to leave it on longer to get the same results — but it’s nearly impossible to fuck up.
That’s largely why I agreed to give it a shot. My own argent follicles have grown progressively ashen since my 30th birthday — a not-so-young feeling that I hoped Sandler could help me remedy. After reviewing my headshot, he suggested I start with True Son’s “medium brown.”
When my package from True Sons arrived, the first thing I notice is the messaging — or lack thereof. Nothing on the packaging indicates that hair dye is enclosed. Even the bottles themselves are discreet, with the colors (auburn, dirty blond, medium brown, dark brown, brown black and true black) covertly printed on the base. “No one else has to know you are going to dye,” the directions reassure.
True Sons relentlessly leans into the die/dye homonym with the tagline, “It’s a beautiful day to dye,” peppered throughout. Indeed, death is a running theme. “I have a confession, father,” the narrator says to a salt-and-pepper priest in True Sons’ launch video, set at the funeral. “I want you to dye.”
“Getting the tone right was important for the messaging,” Sandler says, the gist of which he describes as “having fun, celebrating masculinity and being unafraid to dye.” Perhaps that’s why it reminds me of my fraternity pledge master. “Brothers, know thyselves,” begins a section on selecting your shade. “Be honest. If you’re a natural blonde, own it.” Lest there be any confusion whether True Sons is complicated, the simple nine-step process goes like this: “Check it, shake it, squirt it, apply it, wait for it, wash it, clean it, repeat it, own it.”
“You just can’t fuck this up,” reads the packet of dye removal wipes.
“No Glove, no Love,” promises a bag a disposable mittens.
Sandler says another of True Sons’ taglines — “Created for the modern man” — means to demonstrate that it’s understated. “Today’s man wants to look natural,” he says. “The day of the over-dyed, 1970s swinger has long passed.”
At lunchtime, I sneak away to my office bathroom and casually apply two golf-ball size dollops of True Sons’ medium brown hair foam. It looks, smells and feels like the fancy mousse I used to steal from my mother as a closeted, yet narcissistic, 12-year-old gay boy.
“Very few people will say, ‘I’m going to dye this weekend and not dye again for two months,’” Sandler says, which is why he thinks True Sons is well suited for a subscription service. For $30 you’ll receive one can a month; three cans quarterly run $72 — comparable to what you’d pay for Supercuts “Gray Blending” ($30) or “Full Color” ($50), but available to apply in the comfort and anonymity of your own home. (A three-pack of Just For Men Mustache & Beard Brush-In Color Gel costs $23.97.)
Twenty minutes later, the timer goes off on my phone and I hop into the office shower (yes, we have one) as directed, to “rinse and dry thoroughly with water only.” I’m pleasantly surprised I’ve eliminated the entire population of my gray hair in less time than it takes to shit and shave. Better yet, not single gray has returned in the week since.
“A beautiful day to dye,” indeed.