It seems to happen overnight. One day you’re hoping not to be carded at bars, and the next you’re waking up with increasing numbers of gray hair. Why are they there? And can we delay the inevitable?
The Law of Diminishing Returns
Hair turns gray because of a lack of melanin production over time. “It’s not clear why, but over time, the melanocytes begin to secrete less melanin which is the major factor for pigment in the hair follicle. The result is graying and then whitening of the hair follicles over time. There is no known way to slow the process down unfortunately,” says Dr. Ryan Welter, board certified hair restoration surgeon, leading M.D. and chief surgeon at N.E. Hair in North Attleboro, MA.
Hair turns gray within each individual follicle, P&G Principal Scientist Lesley Bride says. “Melanocytes create the melanin that is imbedded into the hair during its creation at the root of the follicle. The melanin is what gives hair its color. After about 15 cycles of hair (each “new hair strand” that grows from the same follicle), the melanocytes turn off and stop putting melanin into the hair, so it is “colorless” hair.” Basically, from when you are born, a stand of hair grows for about 3 years and then falls out, but you don’t notice because you have 100,000 strands of hair on your head, all at different times in their cycles. After each sheds, a new hair starts out from that same follicle. After this happens 15 times, the melanocytes stop giving the hair any melanin, thus the hair loses its color. Some people will notice their first grays before 25, but the average age for grays to start appearing is 32 to 34 year old. Most people are about 40-50 percent gray by 50 years old.
A person’s genes are the main factor in premature graying in men and women. If you want to know when your hair will turn gray just look at your grandparents or your mom and dad. “Scientific studies of identical twins have shown they gray at the same rate, while studies of non-identical twins have different rates of graying. Therefore, you might not gray at the exact same age as your relatives, but it will be very close,” say Dr. Susan Stuart, board certified dermatologist in La Jolla, California.
There is no direct link between stress and gray hair. It is a myth.
Some medical conditions that can cause premature hair graying are thyroid disease, B12 deficiency, vitiligo and alopecia. “These illnesses cause a change in hair melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce pigment in hair, and when there is a disruption in the activity of the melanocytes, the hair will lose pigment and become lighter in color,” says Dr. Stuart. If you notice premature graying that is different from other family members, you should see a doctor to rule out any of these medical conditions.
This is the one we all know and loathe. “With aging, the hair follicles produce less melanin, the pigment in hair color. After about age 30-35 you will notice the hair might become more dull,” says Dr. Stuart. Depending on your genetics and natural hair color, the graying might not be as noticeable until you get older.
“Hair ages when the scalp is not hydrated. If you do not keep it hydrated or if you wash your hair too often, it will lose its moisture and become weak, brittle and malnourished,” says NYC hairstylist and anti-aging expert Julien Farel, who believes in the importance of looking at the hair in a holistic way. “Keep it looking young, fresh, and healthy—by not only using key ingredients (like hyaluronic acid) that combine the science of anti-aging skin care with the science of hair care, but also using a delivery system that efficaciously distributes the ingredients into the follicle, scalp and hair shaft.”
Often gray hair is associated with a B-12 deficiency. B-12 is found in lots of fish and shellfish, as well as red meat. So relish that sushi! Your body will thank you later.
“Eat a well-balanced diet, by eating the rainbow of fruits and vegetables to ensure you consume the plant-derived antioxidants,” says hair expert, Robert Dorin, D.O. ACOFP of True & Dorin Medical Group. He also advises we stop smoking and limit alcohol consumption as these will inhibit your body’s ability to fight the biochemical effects and processes of aging.
Slowing It Down
Is it possible to slow down the graying process? No, not yet. If you could slow down the growth rate of the hair, you would help hair not look gray as quickly, but that technology hasn’t been developed. “Academics/scientists/dermatologists/tricologists all study these as well as ways to grow hair faster or prevent hair loss/thinning. I suspect they will discover the cure for balding before a cure for graying since it’s much easier to ‘color gray hair’ than regrow it,” says Bride.
Finding the Right Shade of Gray
It’s more about the right hair color shade for your skin tone. “Women with high (or stubborn) grays tend to make the mistake of going too dark. They feel they have to use a darker and darker color each time to get all the grays covered and for that coverage to last,” says Bride. They don’t. Using a permanent hair color with dyes that penetrate into the core will cover the gray, but they can be a light shade of brown, for example. “I think women get too much contrast between their hair and skin when they are going too dark, which makes them look even older. I like women to pick a slightly lighter shade as she ages, but ensure it is “strong” gray coverage technology, like Clairol Age Defy, to not compromise on coverage,” Bride says.
Read more: Going Gray? Here’s What to Do