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Take some hair tips from a styling pro

While we can't all look like movie stars, our hairstyles can look elegant and sexy at any age. But, to get the best hair looks and the best hair bargains, you've got to be a smart and choosy customer. The insider's information below was supplied by my own stylist, a 15-year veteran of the beauty scene, and owner of her own salon:

Q. How do I select a hairstyle best suited for my age?

A. Don't get stuck in the same hairstyle. If you haven't changed in 10 years, it's been too long! In selecting a new style, consider the shape of your face, hair texture and your lifestyle, not your age. Your stylist should help you select a modern, updated look that suits you.

Q. How much does a shampoo, cut and set run these days?

A. The average price in a "high-end" salon is $25-$30 (there are high-end and low-end salons just like restaurants and department stores). Call different salons to compare prices. For bargain-basement prices, consider patronizing a beauty school.

Q. I play golf and sunbathe almost every day. Is it harmful to shampoo and blow-dry afterwards?

A. First of all, be sure to cover your hair with a hat. The sun dries hair and, in most cases, fades color and turns it brassy. You should shampoo as needed. Using a proper Ph-balanced shampoo will keep your hair and scalp clean and not strip hair of its natural oils. As for blow-drying, you definitely need a styling product to protect your hair from the heat. A good product is Redken's "Hot Sets Thermal Setting Mist." Keep your blow-dryer on a medium setting, not high.

Q. The display of conditioners takes up a half aisle where I shop. Could you help me in knowing which to pick?

A. Analyze what your hair needs. If it just needs to be de-tangled, then choose a creme rinse. If your hair is dry, choose a light or heavy conditioner, depending on how much moisture you need. (Conditioners also come in special formulas for fine, medium or coarse hair textures.) For damaged hair, select a re-constructor product.

Q. Are "salon hair care products" really any better than those you can buy in the grocery store?

A. Some grocery store products have high amounts of detergents in them that can dry the hair. It's better to have a professional recommend a product instead of playing a guessing game at the grocery store.

Q. Are there advantages in patronizing a privately owned shop rather than an outlet of a national chain?

A. A small, privately owned salon does not have to do high volume, so they can concentrate on quality and individual service. And, the most gifted stylists tend to work in the smaller, more stylish shops.

Q. What should I do if I have received substandard hair care? Or if my hair is damaged?

A. Call the salon in which you were dissatisfied and ask to talk to the owner. If you feel your hair was damaged, ask for your money back, plus ask the owner what is going to be done to correct your hair.

Q. When is it time to throw in the towel and put on the blue rinse?

A. Never. There is no one on this Earth with natural blue hair. Gray hair can be beautiful all on its own. If you do not like your gray hair, then change it to a color that suits you. But remember, hair color should soften and enhance your appearance. If you go too dark, it will only harden the lines in your face and look very artificial.

Q. How much should I tip my stylist? The person who does my shampoo?

A. The person who does your hair should get 15 to 20 percent of the total bill. Tip the person who did your shampoo whatever you feel comfortable with, usually $2 or $3. (Some stylists take care of the shampoo help, so ask before tipping.)

Special thanks to Patti Franzese of Utopia Hair Salon in St. Petersburg for technical assistance in preparing this column.

You can write to Helen Susik c/o Seniority, the Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, 33731.