Why Does Your Hair Turn Gray?
One day it’s going to happen, if it hasn’t already. You’re going to be doing your daily beauty routine and looking in the mirror. And then you’ll notice something a little strange around the top of your head by your part. Leaning forward, you’ll pull back in shock, eyes wide.
White hairs! Could it be you’re going gray? What is your hair going to look like in a month? A year? Why is this happening?
You might be surprised how early this can start. I noticed my first white hair when I was still in college. One of my friends noticed gray hairs when we were still in high school. No, it doesn’t mean you’re about to go gray overnight, so don’t panic if you’re young and wondering whether you’re going to wake up to a head of gray hair in the morning. It happens more quickly for some people and more slowly for others, but it’s generally a gradual process, and it tends to take a very long time.
Why Does Hair Turn Gray?
First off, know that going gray or white is inevitable, so there is no point trying to fight it (well, past a certain point). It happens to everyone. It’s all just a question of when. After you are 30 years old, your chances of going gray increase 10%-20% every decade.
First...let's talk about Melanin...
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Initially, all hair is actually white, completely without pigment. The pigment which eventually forms (before you are born) is called melanin. There are different types of melanin which can appear in different amounts. Melanin is located in the middle layer of the hair shaft, which is called the “cortex.”
There are two types of melanin pigments:
- Eumelanin: This is dark melanin pigment. It creates black and brown colors.
- Phaeomelanin: This is light melanin pigment. It creates red hues.
Depending on the amount of each present, and the distribution of the pigments, you get all the different natural hair colors. What determines the distribution and amounts?
While there are a number of different factors that influence hair coloring and white hairs, genetics is always number one!
Do you happen to be one of those people who have photos from childhood where you were platinum blonde or even a redhead, but now you look in the mirror at a head of dark blonde or even brown hair? If so, it might interest you to know this is because genetic expressions change over the years. Basically, when you were younger, you didn’t have a lot of eumelanin in your hair. But as you got older, your eumelanin production increased, resulting in the color change (I was one of those kids, and always thought it was a total bummer I didn’t get to keep my platinum locks).
While there are a number of different factors that influence hair coloring and white hairs, genetics is always number one!
Researchers still aren’t sure why this happens, but it doesn’t generally happen the other way around. Children with dark hair generally keep their dark hair as they get older. But coming back onto our main topic …
Hair Turns Gray When Your Body Stops Producing Melanin
So why does your hair eventually turn white or gray? According to Dr. Desmond Tobin of the University of Bradford in England, your hair follicles have a “melanogentic clock.”
This melanogentic clock is something which is actually always active throughout our lifetimes.
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Have you ever plucked a hair out of your head—a pigmented hair—and looked at the root, and noticed that the root is pale in color or even white? If so, you have seen the melanogentic clock at work.
Hair growth actually takes place in three phases:
- Anagen: This is the active growth phase, and can last anywhere from two to seven years. Usually around 80% of your hair is in this phase.
- Catagen: This transitional stage takes 10 to 20 days. Hair growth slows down.
- Telogen: This “resting” phase lasts around 100 days. Ten to fifteen percent of your hair is in this phase at any given time. Your hair is no longer growing at all in this phase. After the phase is complete, it falls out.
Coming back to the melanogentic clock, when your hair is getting toward the point where it is going to fall out at the end of the telogen phase, your melanogentic tells your body to stop sending melanin into the hair shaft. So if you pluck out a hair in this phase, you will see that white root. If you pluck out a hair in the anagen phase, you may not see it.
After you are 30 years old, your chances of going gray increase 10%-20% every decade.
This same melanogentic clock is what signals your body to stop injecting pigment into the hair shaft when you get older. Nishimura, et al. at Harvard have also proposed (in a February 2005 issue of Science) that stem cells play a role. Over time, the stem cells responsible for producing melanocytes may simply fail. Melanocytes are the cells which make up melanin. With a decline in the amount of available pigment, the entire system just starts winding down.
As this happens, more and more hair follicles start producing white hair instead of pigmented hair. For some people this process can go quickly, while for others it can be very gradual. Scientists say that there is no such thing as “gray” hair in reality—only white hair. The “gray” or “silver” effect that you seem to see is actually an illusion caused by white hairs and darker hairs blending together at a distance.
This is why in many countries, no one actually talks about “gray hair” or “going gray” at all. Instead, they talk about hair turning white, or about getting “salt and pepper hair.” “Salt and pepper” is a more correct description of what gray hair is if you actually look at it up close.
Another Factor: Hydrogen Peroxide
As you may well know from your own beauty routine, peroxide is a bleach, and it can be used to turn your hair lighter. But did you know hydrogen peroxide naturally occurs in your hair?
According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), “All of our hair cells make a tiny bit of hydrogen peroxide, but as we get older, this little bit becomes a lot. We bleach our hair pigment from within, and our hair turns gray and then white.”
FASEB asserts that this is actually the only reason that hair turns gray. Obviously there is still a great deal of research left to be done before scientists are sure of all of the reasons. But hydrogen peroxide’s role is an intriguing one, and well worth investigating more deeply. It will be fascinating to see what comes to light as researchers continue to delve into this possibility.
Can You Really Go White from Fright?
There is a prominent legend Marie Antoinette’s hair suddenly turned white the night before she was guillotined. This legend has in turn been perpetuated throughout literature. Most of us can remember reading a book or hearing a story about someone whose hair turned white overnight because of trauma or stress.
This is such a pervasive belief that you may actually be wondering about it yourself. If you just looked in the mirror and noticed white hairs for the first time, you may wonder whether you too will go gray overnight—or close to it. Could you wake up a month or a year from now with a head of white hair? Is it all your fault for letting yourself get so stressed? Are you going to pay later down the line with a head of white hair because of that tax audit or that 60-hour workweek?
As usual, let’s turn to the research to see whether there is any foundation to this concern, and whether the story about Marie Antoinette is baseless or not.
The key question here is whether or not stress plays a role in reducing the production of melanocytes, those cells which comprise your hair pigment.
As of this point, scientists still haven’t found conclusive evidence of a link.
Nonetheless, many researchers still believe that there could be a real connection.
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Jennifer Lin, a dermatologist who works at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston, explains, “There is evidence that local expression of stress hormones mediate the signals instructing melanocytes to deliver melanin to keratinocytes. Conceivably, if that signal is disrupted, melanin will not deliver pigment to your hair.”
Tyler Cymet, head of family medicine at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, conducted a small study on patients at the hospital to see if they went gray sooner after experiencing extended trauma. His findings? “We’ve seen that people who are stressed two to three years report that they turn gray sooner.”
Cymet’s hypothesis is that genetics determine when you go gray for the most part, but there may be a 10-year “window” in either direction which is determined in part by your lifestyle and stress levels.
So the short answer? Stress may accelerate the process of your hair turning gray, but by itself it probably is not going to cause gray hair. And if it does cause your hair to turn white faster, it certainly isn’t going to do it overnight. It is still going to take a while. You don’t have to worry about turning into Marie Antoinette—who probably just dispensed with her wig, and revealed she was gray underneath it already.
Of course, losing your head is a lot worse than losing your hair color, and thankfully you don’t have to worry about that either.
So why do some people go gray sooner than others?
Now you know why hair turns gray, and you also know that you don’t have to worry about going white overnight from a bad case of fright. But how quickly will your hair turn gray?
That all depends on the factors which are coming into play. These include factors both in and outside the body:
- Your hormonal balance and changes
- Your age
- Toxins in your hair products and in the environment
- Medical or nutritional problems (not very common compared to these other factors here)
- Whether or not you smoke (smoking can definitely start your hairs turning gray sooner; just one more reason to consider kicking the habit)
Whether or not your gray is considered “premature” depends on your genes.
- Caucasians typically start seeing ample white hairs in their mid-30s.
- Asians start going gray in their late 30s.
- African Americans generally start going gray in their mid-40s.
- By the time you are 50, regardless of your race, there is a 50% chance you will have plenty of gray hair.
- If you are a man, you are likely to start going gray sooner than you will if you are a woman. Men typically start going gray around five years before women do.
That said, it is totally normal if you start going gray in your 20s! Again, don’t be surprised even if you are a teenager and you spot some white hairs (it even happens to children sometimes). This is very common and nothing to be concerned about.
You may have noticed that people with blonde hair tend to retain their color longer than those with darker hair colors. This is actually an illusion. Just as gray hair is actually “salt and pepper hair” when you see it close up, what you are seeing is white and blonde hairs mixed together. Because the colors are closer, you don’t get gray—you may simply perceive it as a lighter shade of blonde. For this reason, you might think that the hair isn’t going gray at all, when in fact it is.
Indeed, on the whole, people with darker hair are actually more likely to hold onto their natural hair color longer, because of the race distribution above. Lighter hair is found among Caucasians, who typically lose their hair color soonest.
It is totally normal if you start going gray in your 20s!
Remember, however, there are tons of exceptions to all of these rules! If you are African American and you are going gray at age 30, you are considered premature, but that does not mean you have something “wrong” with you. Scientists believe that gray hair is sometimes linked to medical problems a B-12 deficiency or a thyroid or pituitary gland problem, but this is not that common. Most of the time when you are going gray early, it is just because you are an outlier.
The same goes if you are on the other end of the spectrum. Maybe you’re a Caucasian around age 30 and you have just found your first couple of gray hairs. That doesn’t guarantee you will go gray over the next few years. You might hang onto your natural color for many years to come. Even in families you can see a lot of variation on the timing of going gray. Perhaps this points toward stress and some of those other lifestyle issues!
What can you do about it?
When you do start going gray, there are a lot of options for covering it up, including both chemical and natural treatments.
- Permanent hair color - This stuff does a great job at concealing gray, and it lasts for many months before you may feel the need to do another layer. For some people, permanent really is very permanent, but for others, fading can happen more quickly. You will also discover that some shades conceal gray better than others.
- Semi-permanent hair color - This kind of dye doesn’t last as long, but it is a good trial option to try a new color and may also be nice if you just want to conceal a few gray hairs by helping them blend in.
- Highlights - If you are blonde, you can add highlights to your hair which look deliberate. The white hairs will blend right into the highlights, and no one will know the difference.
- Henna - For those who want a natural option and love red hair, going ginger can be a great alternative to chemical cover-ups!
No matter what you do, keep in mind that you can hide the gray, but not the texture. Gray hair tends to be wiry and it can be tough to manage, so expect to put extra care and attention into your routine to keep your hair silky and smooth as possible.
Gray hair is nothing to be ashamed of, and you do not have to do anything about it if you do not want to. These days many people are also choosing to embrace their gray locks. Gray, silver, or white hair can be beautiful at any age.
Some younger people even dye their hair gray on purpose! It’s a distinctive look and a great way to get used to the idea of losing your natural color. As a result, gray isn’t even associated as strongly with aging as it was in the past.
Choose your own style and be proud of your hair; all that matters is that you love it!