If you look at your mane of hair and start to notice some grays, what’s your reaction? Are you happy about it, or ready to whip out a hair-dye kit? No matter what your response, it may be helpful to know more about what causes gray hair.
Your hair color is produced by cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce melanin, or pigment. Melanin is also what gives skin its color.
As you get older, your body produces less melanin, and that results in gray hair, says Dr. Janiene Luke, a board-certified dermatologist with Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, California. White hair is caused by the absence of melanin.
Just why does hair get gray at certain points in life? Here are the causes of grey hair.
Aging is a major factor in developing gray hair. Many people will start to notice gray hair in their 30s or 40s, although it’s possible to get gray hair before then, most often due to genetics.
The influence of age on getting gray hair also depends on ethnicity, says Dr. Kemunto Mokaya, a board-certified dermatologist with Complete Dermatology in Houston and author of “Live and Look Younger.” Generally speaking, Asian people start to develop gray hair in their late 30s and Black people in their mid-40s. For white people, gray hair starts on average in their mid-30s.
The cause for when a person goes gray ties back to differences in the structural property of the hair, according to a 2021 review article published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.
Take a look at your parents and grandparents. The age at which their hair went gray has a big influence on when you’ll go gray. That’s because your genes have a role in causing gray hair. In 2016, researchers at University College London identified the IRF4 gene (short for interferon regulatory factor 4) as helping to regulate melanin storage and production. Although the gene was already known for its association with hair color, the 2016 research was the first time it was linked to hair graying. In the future, this may help with the development of ways to slow or stop gray hair.
Certain diseases are associated with developing gray hair sooner rather than later. These include:
— Alopecia areata, a hair loss condition in which the body attacks its own hair follicles. This causes patches of hair, usually the areas with color, to fall out and leave behind gray hairs. “This can look like sudden graying because the hair that’s left is gray or white,” Mokaya says. When hair regrows, it could be gray, white or your normal hair color.
— Neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis, which are rare and inherited noncancerous tumor conditions.
— Thyroid disease. That’s because too much or too little thyroid hormones as a result of thyroid problems can change the look and feel of both your skin and hair.
— Vitiligo, a chronic condition that causes the skin to lose pigment in certain areas. Melanocytes may be lost or destroyed, often because the immune system accidentally attacks melanocytes.
Here’s another good reason to eat a well-rounded, healthy diet. Some nutritional deficiencies are associated with gray hair, including:
— Copper. Copper-rich foods include shellfish, beans, nuts and whole grains.
— Iron. Foods with iron include meats, poultry, seafood, dark green vegetables and iron-fortified cereals and pastas.
— Vitamin B12. This is more commonly seen in vegans or vegetarians as B12 is often consumed from animal sources, Luke says. You can get vitamin B12 from meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
— Vitamin D. Vitamin D-rich foods include salmon, eggs and vitamin D-fortified foods like cereals and orange juice.
Stress May Cause Grey Hair
Can you blame your gray hair on a crazy work schedule, screaming kids or family drama? Maybe. Psychological stress can contribute to oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. In addition to contributing to aging, oxidative stress can interfere with pigment production in the hair follicles, Mokaya says.
Additionally, when the body is under stress, sympathetic nerves (the ones associated with a flight-or-fight response) branch into the cells that make hair color and release a hormone called norepinephrine, says board-certified physician Dr. Matthew Zarraga, a cosmetic and general dermatologist at Z-ROC Dermatology in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A large amount of norepinephrine, along with melanocytic stem cells, can cause the permanent destruction of the cells that produce pigment.
Stress can also cause a condition called telogen effluvium, where the hair sheds about three times faster than it normally would. (You may have heard of people experiencing hair loss from COVID-19.) If you’re middle-aged, the hair that grows back after having telogen effluvium may be gray instead of your original color.
Here’s another reason to stop lighting up: Smoking can make gray hair worse by causing the inactivation of essential pigment-producing genes, Zarraga explains. A 2013 study in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal found that people who smoked starting were 2.5 times more likely to develop gray hair before the age of 30.
Can You Stop Gray Hair?
If you have gray hair, consider a few ideas that may help you cope:
1. Consider embracing it, Zarraga says. Try to view it as a symbol of wisdom and life experience. Having gray hair is a normal part of the aging process.
2. Part your hair another way. Depending on the location of the gray, simply parting your hair in a different direction may help to cover up an area of gray, Luke suggests. You may also be able to use products that target your roots to cover up the gray.
3. Dye it. Using hair dye is the obvious answer if you’re not comfortable with your grays. If you don’t want to use chemical dyes, there’s natural henna available in colors like red, brown or even a blackish sheen, Mokaya says. You may have heard that dyeing your hair can cause more (or fewer) gray hairs, but this isn’t true.
4. Stop smoking. You can’t change your hair color simply by quitting, but you may be able to slow down how much or how quickly gray hair develops. Quitting smoking can be hard. 1-800-QUIT-NOW offers free quit plans, materials and resources local to your area.
5. Eat a variety of healthy foods. If you know you have a certain nutritional deficiency or suspect that you do, work with a doctor or registered dietitian to get it addressed.
6. Do what you can to manage stress. Whether it’s pursuing a hobby, ommm-ing it up with meditation or simply slipping away from life’s madness, find what helps you to keep stress under control.
7. Protect your hair from the sun. Use a hat when you can, as excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can be an environmental stressor for hair, Mokaya says. That could speed up gray hair.
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Update 07/19/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.