Why Does Hair Turn Grey?

Mature man with grey hair wearing suit, looking into camera, wonder why does hair turn grey.

At a Glance

  • Hair turning grey is related to a reduction in the amount of melanin, the pigment responsible for hair color, produced by the body
  • In the majority of cases, grey hair is a normal part of the aging process, although there are other reasons why hair can become grey, and some health conditions which involve premature greying of the hair
  • There are steps you can take to make sure your body has everything it needs to keep producing its natural hair color for as long as possible, which may slow down the greying process.

The majority of us dread THAT moment…the day when you’re looking at your reflection in the mirror – obviously admiring the resplendent view – when all of a sudden, there it is, in all its glory. The first grey hair.

Snip it off, pull it out, color it in with a sharpie – whatever you do, you know it’s the start. Even if they aren’t apparent on closer inspection after finding the first one, you know the other grey hairs are on their way, and it won’t be long before they arrive.

Our hair is a big part of our identity – who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we think others see us. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many of us get quite upset at the sight of our hair going grey.

We tend to associate going grey with getting old, and maybe it’s the implications that bother us most – the idea that the time is coming when we may not be as able to do the things we enjoy, joints starting to ache and all the other delightful things that we associate with old age.

However, not all situations involving hair turning grey are in the aging population. A friend of mine had a full head of grey hair by the age of fifteen.

So how does hair turn grey, and what are the factors that influence this? Is there anything we can do to change the rate at which our hair turns grey? Read on to find out all this and more

What Is Hair?

Blond, brown and black clips of hair placed next to each other on white background.

Of course, we all know we’re talking about what covers our head, eyebrows and other parts of our body. On average we each have about a hundred thousand hairs on our head, although this varies with hair color, which is linked to the thickness of individual hair strands.

Blonde hairs are thin and people who are naturally blonde can have as much as fifty percent more hair than average. Black hair is slightly thicker, with brunette hair strands being thicker than black hair. Strands of red hair are the thickest and most dense, so they tend to have less hair than blondes at approximately 86 thousand strands. Grey hair is the thinnest hair type.

A strand of hair is mostly made up of a protein called keratin, which is also a major component in our fingernails and toenails. The substance that gives hair its color is called melanin. Hair consists of around twelve percent water, and has been found to contain traces of vitamins and minerals.

The Biology of Hair

Hair is produced in a hair follicle, where cells are packaged together to form the hair strand. Hair follicles are made up of several different parts which provide the hair root with a blood supply and nutrients.

A strand of hair consists of three parts. The main body is called the cortex. This contains the cells which make up the hair strand and give the hair its color. Within the cortex there is a central core called the medulla, which is so thin it’s almost invisible in human hair, and scientists have yet to uncover its purpose.

The outer layer of the hair is called the cuticle. It consists of several layers of thin cells which overlap – similar to roof tiles – to protect the hair strand. A cuticle layer in good condition also makes your hair shine, while cuticle damage is what makes our hair look dull.

Interestingly, it isn’t the strands of hair which contain oil; this is produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin to help lubricate hair and keep it healthy. This is why when our hair gets greasy, it’s the hair nearest the scalp that is most affected.

There’s a great video on the composition of hair here:

What Determines Hair Color?

As we have touched on briefly, hair color is a result of a substance called melanin – a dark pigment which occurs naturally in our hair and skin. It is produced from the amino acid tyrosine by specialized cells called melanocytes

In the skin, melanin is responsible for the change in skin color when we get a tan. In hair, the amount and type of melanin in the strands determines hair color. The types of melanin in human hair are:

  • Eumelanin – black and brown pigments
  • Pheomelanin – red and yellow pigments

These two different types of melanin blend together in different combinations to make up all of the different hair colors.

There are three distinct phases of hair growth:

#1 – The “Anagen” phase is the period of active growth of the hair fiber. It is the longest stage of hair development, lasting anywhere from two to seven years. The vast majority of our hair strands are in this phase at any given point in time

#2 – The “Catagen” phase, also known as the transition phase is when the hair stops growing. This stage usually lasts for between ten and twenty days

#3 – The “Telogen” phase is the final stage in the life cycle of a hair, when it has ceased all growth activity and it is preparing to fall out. Approximately twelve percent of our hair is in this phase at any particular point in time

After the telogen phase, the hair follicle starts over again, producing a new hair.

The anagen phase of growth is when hair strands are colored by the melatonin. The specialized melanocytes are located in the surface of the skin around the exit point of the hair from the follicle. They inject the hair with melanin at the point where the strand starts to leave the skin, which is what gives our hair its color.

There are a few other factors which are involved in deciding each specific hair color. How much pigment is produced, how much of each type of pigment and how close together the pigment granules are within the hair all contribute to creating the various different natural hair color shades.

So if you have dark hair, it’s because your melanocytes produce lots of eumelanin and the granules are close together within the hair shaft. People with light hair colors produce more pheomelanin, less eumelanin and the melanin within the hair is more spaced out. (source)

Eyelash hairs are darkest due to the fact that they contain a higher proportion of eumelanin

Why Does Hair Turn Grey?

Mature woman with grey hair walking down the street in Asia.

In most cases, the process of hair turning grey is related to the aging process. Dr. Anthony Oro, Professor of Dermatology at Stanford University states that the general rule concerning grey hair is that 50 percent of the population has approximately 50 percent gray hair coverage at the age of 50.

However, some research has revealed different results. One study found that almost three-quarters of people aged between 45 and 65 had an average covering of 27 percent of grey hair. (source)

In actual fact, using the term “turning grey” is not technically correct; hair doesn’t “turn” into a different color; once a hair is colored by melatonin, it stays that color unless the color is changed using chemicals. So going grey is a process that is concerned with the growth of new strands of hair.

As we age, the amount of melanin produced by the melanocytes decreases. This means that there is less melanin available to be injected into the hair, and the hair lacks color. In grey hair there is still some pigment present; white hair is a result of no pigment at all.

Why Factors Are Linked To Grey Hair?

Scientific research has found that there are many reasons why hair begins to go grey.

In 2005, research published in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology linked the age at which the onset of grey hair occurs with hereditary factors. Only last year, scientists studying Cell and Developmental Biology at the University College of London identified the specific gene responsible for grey hair. (source)

Other research studies have also shown that there are links between greying hair and the following conditions:

  • Lack of vitamin B12
  • Low bone density
  • Tuberous sclerosis Von Recklinghausen disease – also known as neurofibromatosis
  • Alopecia areata
  • Heart disease
  • Smoking

Vitamin B12 has been shown to help produce red blood cells, as well as helping to control many different metabolic functions. A lack of this vitamin results in decreased melanocyte activity in producing hair pigmentation. (source)

In the most simple terms, low bone density is a reduced amount of the tissues which make up the complex honeycomb-like structure inside bones. It is typified by lower than normal levels of vitamin D, calcium and other vitamins and minerals. Insufficient levels of the same micronutrients have also been linked with cases of premature greying. (source)

Tuberous sclerosis – also known as Bourneville’s disease – and Von Recklinghausen disease or neurofibromatosis are genetic disorders which cause skin lesions and affect the pigmentation of skin and hair. While they can affect all organs in the body, research has identified one of the earliest signs of this condition as hair starting to turn grey. (source)

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease which primarily causes hair loss in patches because the immune system attacks the hair follicles. This condition has also been observed to cause greying of the hair that is left behind. (source)

Research has also linked grey hair with heart disease, although at present there is no indication that heart disease actually causes grey hair. Rather, the studies to date demonstrate that the presence of grey hair is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease. This is not to say that grey hair causes heart disease, but grey hair as a sign of aging is a sign that other parts of our bodies are also subject to age-related changes which are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. (source)

Grey Hair May Be The Result Of A Natural Bleaching ProcessSweet old lady with a Kodak camera taking a picture of you.

Further research which was actually aiming to study a skin condition called vitiligo, which involves areas of the skin having no pigmentation, stumbled across some interesting new information which may help us understand more about grey hair.

The research team discovered that vitiligo is associated with low levels of a particular enzyme called catalase. One of the functions of this enzyme is to break down hydrogen peroxide in the skin.

A lack of catalase in the body leads to a reduction in pigmentation because the buildup of hydrogen peroxide basically has a bleaching effect on the skin.

Every individual hair cell produces a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. This is not a problem in the presence of the enzyme catalase, but if there is a lack of catalase, the levels of hydrogen peroxide build up over time.

To dig a little bit into the chemistry of this issue, catalase breaks hydrogen peroxide down into water and oxygen, preventing hydrogen peroxide from building up and having a bleaching effect in skin or hair cells.

Scientists discovered that this hydrogen peroxide buildup blocks the production of melanin, which results in grey hair. The research noted that it is likely that the issue of whether or not an individual produces adequate amounts of catalase is closely linked to genetic factors, which may explain findings in previous studies. (source)

Which Hair Color Changes Fastest?

According to research, people with red hair tend to lose pigmentation earlier than people with other hair colors, but their hair can have a tendency to turn white rather than grey.

This is followed by people with darker hair colors, and lastly lighter hair colors. One advantage that people with blonde hair have is that grey hair blends in with the natural hair color and is much less noticeable compared to those with dark hair.

Dark brown and black hair provides a dramatic contrast to grey hair, and makes the silvery strands much more visible.

Some research has found that on average, men have significantly more grey hair than women, and that the age at which people start to turn grey and the rate at which grey hair takes over is closely linked to ethnicity and geographical location.

There is also a proven link between ethnicity and the onset of grey hair. Some studies show that Caucasian people tend to be affected by grey hair at an earlier age compared to people of both Asian and African descent. (source)

Salt and Pepper Hair

That suave, sophisticated George Clooney salt and pepper look is one of the big mysteries when it comes to research on grey hair – it literally is a grey area.

Professor Des Tobin, Director of the Centre for Skin Sciences at the University of Bradford in the UK is one of the leading experts on skin and hair follicle pigmentation and aging.

In an interview with the New York Times, Professor Tobin commented: “If it was purely based on one’s antioxidant system or the ability to handle oxidative stress, then you still have to explain why some follicles can produce perfectly pigmented hairs in a sea of white hairs”.

As yet, no research had been able to explain why some melanocytes retain the ability to produce pigments, and others don’t.

Can Anything Stop Hair Turning Grey?

There may be nothing we can actually do to prevent our hair from going grey in the long term, but there may be things we can do to delay it.

The key to avoiding grey hair is to make sure you supply the melanocytes with everything they need to keep producing pigments for as long as possible.

Some of the following suggestions may be traditional remedies or based on logical reasoning rather than hard scientific evidence, but they may be worth a try!

Stop Smoking

Studies have shown a clear link between smoking and premature aging, including grey hair. Giving up smoking also has a whole host of other health benefits, so if you’re really bothered about going grey and want to delay it for as long as possible, there’s no reason not to kick the habit!

Keep Hydrated

Making sure you get enough water helps keep the cells in your skin hydrated and well. This includes the hair follicles on your scalp and the melanocytes.

Not enough water in the body means that it’s more difficult for the necessary nutrients to reach the cells, which mean less than healthy hair and a possible reduction of melanin production.

Substances like caffeine, alcohol, fried foods and hot spices can have a dehydrating effect on the body, so limit your intake of these; when you do consume them, make sure you drink plenty of water to compensate.

Reduce Stress

Stressed out woman in the office trying to shut the world out.

Making sure you’re under the least amount of stress possible is generally a great idea for your health. Reducing stress has been linked to lower risk of heart disease, depression and overeating, among other health benefits.

While there is no clearly defined scientific link between stress and going grey, we have already discussed how stress could possibly be a factor, so this is something that may be worth working towards. (source)

Boost Your B12

We already know that a lack of vitamin B12 can contribute to grey hair, so it makes sense to give yourself the heads up and include good sources of this vitamin in your eating plan.

Eggs are a great source of B12, as are cheese, bananas, beef and other red meats and fish.

Count The Coppers

Research has indicated that the dietary mineral, copper assists in the production of melanin, so making sure you get adequate amounts of copper regularly in your diet can help to keep grey hairs at bay. (source)

The required daily amount of copper for the average adult is 900 micrograms, which equates to approximately:

120 grams of walnuts 1 ounce of beef liver 1 cup of almonds 1 cup of sunflower seeds 120 grams of good quality dark chocolate

Anyone for a dark chocolate, walnut and almond snack bar sprinkled with sunflower seeds? It sounds like quite a delicious combination – for sure there’s a recipe out there somewhere!

Keep An Eye On Iodine and Iron

Iodine is another micronutrient that has been indicated in research to affect hair pigment production, and the same goes for iron, so making sure you include good sources of these in your diet can help maintain your hair color and delay grey hairs.

Sea vegetables like kelp and wakame seaweeds, cranberries, organic yoghurt, navy beans and strawberries are all great sources of iodine.

Beef and chicken liver as well as beef and other red meat, clams, mussels, sardines and other oily fish are all excellent sources of iron. (source)

Let’s Get Physical!

As with all cells in the body, melanocytes and hair follicles rely on good circulation to help them function well, because blood is the transport system which supplies all of the nutrients the cell needs.

Exercise is a great way to get the blood pumping and improve your circulation, so include regular exercise – even simply a brisk walk – in your daily routine.

Exercise also helps to reduce stress, which is another possible factor in greying hair, so regular exercise may help slow down the greying process in more ways than one.

Another way to get circulation to the scalp working well is a good firm but gentle fingertip massage for a few minutes each day, which brings us nicely on to…

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is terribly fashionable right now, both for cooking and for use in hair and beauty products. A gentle scalp and hair massage with coconut oil certainly isn’t going to do your hair any harm; it will help to moisturize and enrich your hair.

Coconut oil also contains antioxidants which may help to prevent grey hairs. Use regularly – two to three times a week before shampooing.

What Not To Do When You Spot Grey Hairs

Young man observing grey hair in his beard at the mirror.

When the inevitable happens – as it will for all of us – it sometimes hard to know what to do to manage grey hair. Here are some the things not to do when you see the grey starting to come through…

#1 – Don’t Panic!

We all know this going to happen sooner or later, and you’ve got lots of options, so stay calm and keep breathing.

#2 – Don’t Pluck!

As with hairs in any area of your body, plucking isn’t a great idea. It does not make three hairs grow in place of one, or anything like that; for that to happen, plucking would have to stimulate the generation of new hair follicles, which it doesn’t.

The main thing about plucking is that there isn’t any real benefit, and plucking can cause trauma to the hair follicle. Cutting a hair carefully is always referable to plucking.

#3 – Not Thinking Through Your Options

It’s important to take some time to consider all your options. When grey hairs start to come through, they can actually blend into your existing hair color quite nicely. Some people decide not to do anything, and just allow themselves to go gradually and naturally grey.

When it comes to coloring grey hair, there are lots of different options, from trying out temporary hair color in the form of sprays, wax and hair chalk to using semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes.

Semi-permanent hair color gradually fades every time you wash it, and can last anywhere between four and twelve or more shampoos. Semi-permanent hair color has the advantage that your roots are not clearly visible as your hair grows because the color gently fades.

However, none of these color options tend to be as good at covering grey hair as permanent hair dye. There are a huge number of different manufacturers all offering a wide range of different hair color shades, so the majority of people should have no problems in selecting one to match their current hair color.

Grey hair can be difficult to color, though; it is generally more difficult to get hair color to take in grey hair than for other colors, and some people find that home hair color just doesn’t work on their hair.

To maximize your chances of success, select a product which specifically states it is intended for use on grey hair. If you are really finding it difficult to get your hair to accept hair color, it’s best to seek professional advice from an experienced hairdresser.

#4 – Not Giving Your Hair Regular Conditioning Treatments

As grey hair is often coarse and wiry, it needs extra special care. Using conditioner after washing goes without saying, but you can also use pre-shampoo conditioning treatments, like a hot conditioning oil or an elasticizer to help keep your hair smooth.

A regular deep conditioning treatment is also a good idea to keep your hair as healthy and as manageable as possible.

#5 – Not Paying Attention To Your Diet

As we have already discussed, a lack of nutrients such as vitamin B12 can contribute to a reduction in melanin, resulting in grey hair, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to help maximize the melanin your body is able to produce.

As nutrients like copper and iodine are also likely to be helpful in keeping the grey wolf from the door, it might be an idea to consider taking a multi-nutrient supplement.

However, this depends entirely on what food you include in your diet currently; fresh sources of nutrients are always best, but supplements are better than not getting enough.

Final Thoughts

Mature couple with grey hair wearing sunglasses, walking outdoors.

In summary, what we do know is that our hair is colored by different types of the pigment melanin. The production of this pigment can be slowed down or blocked for several different reasons, and it is the lack of pigment which results in grey hair.

While research hasn’t yet been able to identify the exact cause of grey hair, scientists have been able to identify the gene which is responsible and link the incidence of grey hair to several different factors and health conditions.

One thing is for sure; there definitely isn’t a magic pill you can take to stop or slow down the process of going grey. There are, however, lots of things you can do to make sure your body has everything it needs to keep producing melanin for as long as possible.

These include making sure you get a regular supply of all the macronutrients your hair needs, taking regular exercise and giving yourself scalp massages using coconut oil.

When it comes down to it, however, those grey hairs are going to get us all eventually, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a sign that we have lived a rich and colorful life, and we’re are now choc-full of experience!

From this point, we have two choices: to let our natural grey show – it can look very distinguished and elegant – or to cover it up with hair dye.

Whatever you decide to do is your own personal choice, but I think one really great thing about grey hair is that it’s one thing we are all together on!

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