5 Questions Everyone Asks About Going Gray
Everyone remembers their first gray hair. It’s a shocking, physical reminder that yes, you are getting older (and undoubtedly wiser). Over time, the rogue gray hairs you keep finding will multiply until you’re full-on gray or salt and pepper. While we all get gray hair eventually, it’s a change that doesn’t happen to everyone at the same age for everyone.
But what causes gray hair, why do some of us start going gray earlier than others, what steps can you take to delay the process, and how should you care for gray hair? With the help of Alayna Small we’re answering the most common questions about going gray, as well as how to care for naturally gray hair.
1) WHY DOES HAIR GO GRAY?
Hair and its color are separate things. Hair stem cells make hair, and pigment-forming stem cells make color. Typically they work together, but either can wear out, sometimes prematurely.
To elaborate further, hair color is determined by your genetics and a pigment called melanin, of which there are two main types: pheomelanin (red) and eumelanin (black or brown). Gray hair occurs when the pigment cells (or melanocytes) in the hair follicle starts producing less melanin. How much melanin your body produces is also determined by your genetics.
As you age, your hair basically bleaches itself. While you may be familiar with hydrogen peroxide as a way to go blonde, it’s also the way we go gray. According to a 2009 study published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, hydrogen peroxide naturally occurs in our hair follicles, and as we get older, it builds up. This build-up blocks the production of melanin, a.k.a. our hair’s pigment.
Going gray is caused by oxidative stress and a massive build up of hydrogen peroxide due to wear and tear of our hair follicles. The peroxide winds up blocking the normal synthesis of melanin, our hair’s natural pigment.
2) WHAT CAUSES HAIR TO GO GRAY?
The most common cause of gray or white hair is normal aging. As we get older, our hair eventually turns gray and then white. This process is called achromotrichia.
Achromotrichia normally begins in the early to mid-twenties in men and late twenties for woman.
However, hair color and race are two factors that can effect when you’ll start to go gray. According to a study by the British Association of Dermatologists, fifty percent of the population has about fifty percent gray hair by the age of 50. This research also found that the rate people go gray is linked to their ethnicity. Caucasians tend to go gray earlier – and redheads earliest of all. Then Asians. Then African-Americans. Scientists haven’t figured out why yet. While genetics and ethnicity play a large part in when and how quickly your hair turns gray, your chances of gray hair increase by 10 to 20 percent every decade after you turn 30
The age at which graying begins seems almost entirely due to genetics and therefore cannot be altered, although thyroid abnormalities, stress events (including a multitude of environmental and endogenous challenges which may make you shed hair and the hair that grows back may be a different color), smoking (and other toxic exposures which impose free radical damage), as well as certain vitamin deficiencies can, and do lead to gray hair. Low vitamin B12 is notorious for causing loss of hair pigment. Researchers have found that some cases of prematurely gray hair may indeed be caused by a Vitamin B deficiency, specifically that of Vitamin B12. A patient with prematurely gray hair, and a Vitamin B12 deficiency due to pernicious anemia, enjoyed the return of his original hair color following Cobalamin (B12) injections.
Vitamin B-12 is found in high quantities in liver and other organ meats as well as shellfish, especially clams. It can also be found in varying amounts in all red meats, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products. Vitamin B-12 is vital for producing red blood cells, and it is also important to your metabolism and keeping your central nervous system functioning and healthy. As a water-soluble vitamin, it needs to be replenished regularly although your body can store it in the liver.
Low vitamin B-12 levels can result from aging — people over 50 often lose their ability to absorb dietary vitamin B-12 — as well as from gastrointestinal surgery. Certain digestive disorders, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, can also cause poor vitamin B-12 absorption. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are at risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency because most vitamin B-12 is available in animal food sources.
3) CAN YOU PREVENT GRAY HAIR?
The current answer? No, however, the aforementioned research is an important first step to get at the root of the problem, so to speak. They discovered that hair follicles could not repair the damage caused by the hydrogen peroxide because of low levels of enzymes that normally serve this function (MSR A and B). Further complicating matters, the high levels of hydrogen peroxide and low levels of MSR A and B, disrupt the formation of an enzyme (tyrosinase) that leads to the production of melanin in hair follicles.
That said, there are external factors like stress events and exposures to toxins and their bio-accumulation, as well as vitamin deficiencies can trigger shedding and gray hair. So while our predisposition to graying is largely determined by our genetics and age, lifestyle factors and your general health condition are also contributing factors. Taking steps to reduce oxidative stress and improve mitochondrial density and functioning including: eating a healthy low glycemic diet, taking vitamins and minerals to support proper nutritional balance (specifically vitamin B12, exercising, getting plenty of rest, reducing exposure to toxins, taking steps to balance your hormone, as well as Red Light Therapy are all effective strategies to reduce inflammation and retard the aging process which includes the onset of gray hair. Read Is There a Cure For Gray Hair for more on this topic.
4) HOW IS GRAY HAIR DIFFERENT THAN YOUR ORIGINAL COLOR?
First off, gray hair doesn’t turn gray — it grows that way. A single hair grows for one to three years, then you shed it – and grow a new one. Every time the hair regenerates, you have to re-form the pigment-forming cells we discussed earlier. All of our hair cells make a tiny bit of hydrogen peroxide as they produce this new hair, but as we get older, this little bit becomes a lot. This peroxide winds up blocking the normal synthesis of melanin, our hair’s natural pigment. And thus as you age, your new hairs are more likely to be white.
5) WHAT STEPS SHOULD BE IN YOUR GRAY HAIRCARE ROUTINE?
First things first: Don’t pluck them. When you start to find a few random grays, grabbing your tweezers might seem like a good idea, but plucking out a gray hair isn’t going to get rid of it as it will grow back.
Another reason not to pluck? It can damage the hair follicle. Dermatologists recommend not plucking hair you wish to keep as repeated trauma to the hair can damage it, and cause you to permanently lose hair from the respective spot.
In addition to getting gray hair, our scalps also tend to become drier as we get older, too. Alayna recommends cutting back on how often you wash your hair (to avoid stripping it of its natural oils), and cutting back on hot tools (so hair doesn’t get brittle).
Gray hair is also prone to brassiness from styling, pollution, and environmental damage, so washing it with a purple shampoo (the same formulas for blonde hair) such as Davines Alchemic Silver Shampoo and Davines Alchemic Silver Conditioner or REF Cool Silver Shampoo once a week will help cut out the yellowness so white and silver hair looks vibrant and shiny again.