Among the sundry ways in which life sorts itself into lists labeled Fair and Unfair is the way in which we regard gray hair on males and females. Generally speaking, men gain the adjective "distinguished," while women are saddled with "mature."

Yet, the Fair/Unfair lists also include the notion that it's acceptable for women to get their gray painted away in salons, while men should just suck it up.

Now there is a middle ground -- dare we call it a gray area? -- called "gray reduction" and it's keeping chairs filled at one Minneapolis salon. Jon Charles Lake Street salon was named one of "the 52 salons that are shaping America's look" in the August Elle magazine.

Charles said he's been working on this concept for 20 years, about as long as he's been styling hair.

"My joke is that I'm the only straight man who, when I meet a woman, looks up instead of down because I'm checking out her hair," he said. And on that note, we're off.

No Elvis in the building

Charles is guided by what he calls the three rules of male hair color.

1. No Elvis black. "It's not acceptable -- unless you're on the professional gambling circuit."

2. No orangey or brassy. "No one should be orangey or brassy, but especially not men."

3. No line of regrowth, or what bottle blondes call dark roots.

"Is there anything wrong with gray hair? No," Charles said. But it's a fact of life that people make judgments based on appearance, and that in a worrisome economy, the vibrancy of youth can trump the wisdom of age.

His is not an isolated observation. Sales of men's hair dye have soared in the past 15 years as guys have experienced the sort of hubba-hubba scrutiny that women have fielded for centuries. From People's "Sexiest Man Alive" to TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," men are learning that Bo Derek wasn't the last person to be measured against a numerical scale.

But only recently have products appeared that lessen gray without eliminating it. Most require salon visits, such as the popular "Color Camo" by Redken for Men. Salons throughout the Twin Cities are offering more hair treatment services for men seeking to put some gentle brakes on the gray. "We have quite a few men who come in," said a woman booking clients at the Juut Salon Spa in Edina.

Earlier this year, the Just for Men toiletry line debuted Touch of Gray, a subtler option than its legendary sibling, Grecian Formula, both for at-home use. It all speaks to a higher standard of grooming.

"We're light-years beyond metrosexual now," said Charles, referring to the trend of about five years ago that made hair salons, facials and teeth whiteners safe for straight men. "That guy over there getting a pedicure just got a color. There are always a couple of guys in here."

Coming to terms with vanity

One of those guys is Ross Fefercorn, 53, a real estate developer whose hair has shifted from brown to sandy over the years. The gray appeared with a rather dramatic streak, he said, like Lily in "The Munsters." "People asked me if I did it on purpose."

As his hair paled to a light brown, the gray wisps spread. He didn't mind them, but also wanted to look as well-groomed as possible, which meant managing how much gray he wanted and where.

"I actually was reluctant at first because I didn't want to think about being vain," Fefercorn said, "and I also didn't want to leave the salon looking like I just walked out of a Grecian Formula commercial."

That's where gray reduction comes in. "When you look at gray hair, it's kind of like you can see through it," Charles said. "So it's like painting hair where there wasn't before." Charles said the idea is guided by the percentage of color he paints onto the hair and the size of the brushstrokes. He uses a French technique of sweeping strokes widely known in salon circles as "balliage," but just calls it "placing the color" when dealing with male clients.

"When you tell some guys you're going to do balliage on their hair, they get a little nervous," Charles said. Likewise, he said, "gray reduction sounds a lot more analytical" than getting streaked, foiled or dyed.

Subtlety is the goal

The whole process takes about 20 minutes and costs $60 to $90. Far from the popularity of dramatic makeovers, the idea is to make the change almost unnoticeable. In fact, Fefercorn's wife didn't catch on right away. Gray reduction can be done as infrequently as three or four times a year.

"People ask why anyone would color their hair and leave some gray, but that's the point of this," Charles said. "You're not changing the look that much."

As he spritzed on some finishing spray, Fefercorn flinched and squinted, caught off-guard by the final touch that women expect like a parting hug.

These things take time.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185