Why Is Salt and Pepper Hair So Hot?

Worried about going grey? Don't be.

November 11, 2021 10:29 am
Black and white photos of Patrick Dempsey, George Clooney and Idris Elba
Just a few salt and pepper studs
VALERY HACHE, Steve Granitz, Bruce Glikas

All anyone wants to talk to me about is salt and pepper hair. This is because — in case you missed it — I am now a card-carrying boyfriend-haver, and the lucky gent in question happens to have a full head of the kind of hair we can only describe in terms of tabletop condiments, for some reason. Every time I whip out the wallet-sized photo I keep of him on my person at all times (by which I mean, show someone a photo of us on my phone), the first response I get is: “Ooh, salt and pepper hair!” 

Obviously, I’m no stranger to the charms of a touch of grey. What surprises me — as a woman with a preference for older men in general, regardless of the state of their hair — is the extent to which women who otherwise don’t tend to go for older guys seem to respond to the salt and pepper look. Even women who do like an older man can’t usually be found fawning over most other signs of aging — his sexy crow’s feet, laugh lines and emoji illiteracy. Something about greying hair, however, seems almost universally attractive. 

Part of it is surely due to daddy kink going mainstream in the 2010s, but again, an appreciation for a salt and pepper mane doesn’t seem to be limited to women who have joined the cult of dating older. You don’t have to look far to find a woman on Twitter praising the partially grey look, and men, too, seem to have picked up on the benefit of a few grey hairs. 

In fact, greying hair has become such a commodity that there is now a market for products designed to help men keep that touch of grey in place. While most guys may still dread the first signs of grey hair, many learn to embrace the counterintuitive boost a few silver strands lend their sexual market value. But what is it about the salt and pepper look that’s so damn charming? 

Christopher Oldstone-Moore, Ph.D., senior lecturer at Wright State University and author of Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair, has a few theories. While he can’t identify when, precisely, the salt and pepper look “became identified as attractive,” he notes that “the term ‘distinguished’ certainly has a long history and has been associated with mature men.” 

Evidence of this association between aging locks and a “distinguished” male aesthetic can be traced back to at least the 18th century, when George Washington-esque white powdered wigs were all the rage. “So it is safe to say that silver hair has long been connected to being ‘distinguished,’” concludes Oldstone-Moore, though, he adds, “this is not quite the same as sexual attractiveness,” 

As for that bridge between “distinguished” and downright hot, Oldstone-Moore says that he has “not come across much of a conversation about silver hair as a specifically attractive element before the twentieth century,” and would suggest looking “at Hollywood as the bellwether on this change,” adding that it would seem salt and pepper “has not been a romantic attraction until recent times.”

These days, there’s clearly no shortage of stars sporting salt and pepper hair, from certified grey fox George Clooney to younger celebs well on their way to aging like fine wine, including Ryan Reynolds and Patrick Dempsey. But even outside of Hollywood, where men like Pete Davidson can clean up based purely on qualities that have yet to be determined, that touch of grey carries an undeniable charm. 

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that younger women and older men are often operating under such a strong, if socially polarizing, magnetic force. “Many researchers have concluded that women are more interested in indicators of character than physique itself,” says Oldstone-Moore. “This helps explain why women are often interested in older men, while men are often interested in younger women.” 

Meanwhile, research suggests that both men and women are attracted to “neonate” — AKA youthful — features, such as large eyes, “though both look for signs of maturity as well,” says Oldstone-Moore. In men who have sex with women, this often translates to a preference for a more pronounced waist-to-hip ratio in female partners, while in their female counterparts, it can manifest as an appreciation for signs of trichological maturity.

Moreover, according to Oldstone-Moore, studies suggest that women, in particular, “are seeking a balance when it comes to masculine traits.” In the case of facial hair, for example, “Too much beard, particularly a dark beard, is associated with high virility — and perhaps too much masculinity, [thus] implying its worst traits, such as aggression, unsociable behavior and unreliability,” he says. “On the other hand, a smooth face is not masculine enough, and so a clear sign of the ability to grow a beard without actually having one seems preferred in several surveys of women.” 

Translating this generalized preference for balanced facial hair among women to regular scalp hair, we might conclude “that salt and pepper hair can be attractive as a sign of character, particularly maturity, and helps strike a desirable balance between being too young and too old, and between being too masculine and not enough,” says Oldstone-Moore. “Of course, where to draw the line in this balancing act can shift over time and between cultures.”

It’s also worth noting — if only as an aside — that women are rarely if ever granted this same level of forgiveness, let alone praise, for displaying any physical signs of aging. While greying men are often hailed as grey foxes or salt and pepper studs, women who flaunt their grey locks before the public eye are rarely treated so graciously. 

Still, aging is hard on us all. So if you, a man who is going grey or is anxiously anticipating his first silver strand, need some consolation, I can assure you that the world will welcome your salt and pepper locks with open, probably pretty horny, arms.

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