t's nearly 20 years ago since we met Desmond Tobin the professor of cell biology and director for the Centre for Skin Sciences at the University of Bradford. At that time he had only begun a research project into greying hair. Sixteen years later his team has identified the IRF4 gene responsible for washing colour from hair. Upon the discovery and looking into the future he said "it looks like one day we might reverse hair loss by taking a pill and even realign the structures that influence greying". We are not there yet, but there is hope.
Greying of hair is a fact of life for most people, as is hair loss as you age. So what are the facts about grey hair, what are the causes, and is there any effective treatment, other than dying your hair available?
Going grey is seen by many of looking “old”. Grey hairs can start to grow at any age, with most people noticing their first grey hair by their 30th birthday. And by the age of 50, 50% of the population will have 50% of their hairs turning grey already. This process can much more traumatic for women than men, with the majority of women dying their hair to cover their greys.
Every hair follicle contains pigment cells called melanocytes. The melanocytes produce eumelanin, which is black or dark brown, and pheomelanin, which is reddish-yellow, and pass this melanin to the cells which produce keratin, the chief protein in hair. When you first start to go grey, the melanocytes are still present, but as they become less active and less pigment is deposited into the hair so it appears lighter. As greying progresses, the melanocytes die off until there aren’t any cells left to produce the colour.
Caucasian individuals tend to go grey earlier and for some reason redheaded people start the earliest, followed by Asians, then African-Americans. However, there are no scientific answers as to why this occurs. Unfortunately, as you age you also experience hair loss whereby most individuals over age 50 have some form of hair loss.
Stress is quoted as being a key contributor to greying hair. Stress elevates your adrenal gland’s activity and also activates some of the receptors at the hair follicle level, which causes hair to fall out. However while stress may play a small part, genetic factors are the most likely cause. So if either of your parents had a full head of gray hair in their 30s, there’s a good chance you will, too.
Smoking affects your body from head to toe. That includes the hair on your head. One study showed that smokers are 2 1/2 times more likely to grey before age 30 than nonsmokers. It also can make silver gray look yellow.
Can Health Problems Turn Hair Grey?
They could. These conditions include:
- Lack of vitamin B12
- Certain rare, inherited tumor conditions
- Thyroid disease
- Vitiligo, a condition that destroys pigment-making cells in the scalp
- Alopecia areata causes patches of hair (usually ones with colour) to fall out. This can look like sudden greying because the hair that’s left is grey or white. When your hair regrows, it could be grey, white, or your normal colour.
For now there aren’t any proven ways to prevent your hair going grey. Lifestyle factors such as a healthy balanced diet and not smoking will help. These may help to prevent premature greying but won’t stop it altogether.
Do Greys Hairs Feel Different?
Grey hair is thinner than hair with natural colour because its cuticle is thinner. Your hair needs that natural protection from water, ultraviolet rays from the sun, humidity, chemicals, and heat styling. Without that barrier, your hair loses water. So your grey will feel dry, fragile, and coarse. African American hair tends to be more prone to damage, compared to that of Asians and whites.
To Pluck or Not to Pluck …
There’s an old wives’ tale that says if you pluck a grey, three will grow back. That doesn’t happen. Still, don’t pluck. You’re just delaying the inevitable - another grey strand will replace it. Besides, pulling hair out can damage follicles so much, they no longer grow hair. This can make your hair look thin over time.
For now the only remedy to the grey, is to dye your hair or if you’re ready to ditch the dye, you can go grey gracefully while it grows out.
Scientists are always working to find a way to prevent greying hairs and hopefully one day, grey hairs may be a thing of the past.