Everyone goes gray eventually, but why does it happen?
In our culture, we widely consider graying to be a sign of aging. Note, though, that scientists have actually found no link between physical aging in the rest of the body and graying hair (New York Times).
As it turns out, researchers have only recently uncovered some of what causes people to go gray. This could be a step toward understanding the aging process and what happens in the body
Why Does Hair Turn Gray?
Before explaining why you gray, allow me to explain how hair color works. Melanin — created by melanocytes — is what gives you hair color. There are different kinds of melanin for different hair colors: eumalinin for black or brown hair and pheomelanin for red or blond hair (Popular Science). Hair turns gray because the melanocytes stop producing melanin. This happens one by one because there isn’t one central location for melanin — which explains the gradual shift to silver.
So why do these melanocytes stop producing melanin, or, rather, sending it out? Hydrogen peroxide, the same chemical that when put on hair can make it a vibrant bleach blond.
When researchers were studying vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to have no color (or melanin!), they started thinking that perhaps the cause of this condition — a buildup of hydrogen peroxide — could be the cause (New York Times).
Hair cells produce minute amounts of hydrogen peroxide and as we age, we have less catalase, the enzyme that breaks it down. As the hydrogen peroxide builds up over time it blocks the melanin, causing hair to be bleached and lose pigment — or go gray! (Science Daily).
A Few Reasons for Your Grays
Your Genetics Give You Grays
Unsurprisingly, your mom and dad’s trajectory into silver fox-hood (because I think men and women can be silver foxes), should give you a pretty solid idea of when your own hair will start to turn (Medline Plus).
Genetics play a pretty sizable role in determining when you’ll go gray. It seems we all have a genetically pre-programmed time to gray. Essentially, your genetics determine the production capabilities of melanocytes, which give your hair its color (Popular Science).
Your Gender and Ethnicity Give You Grays
Men will generally start to gray before women. Those first silver strands generally show up around age 30 for men and age 35 for women. But some people don’t see grays until their 40s, or even their 50s.
And race plays a role as well. In general, white people tend to go gray sooner than Asian people, who, in turn, tend to go gray sooner than black people. (Medline Plus).
The Environment Gives You Grays
Pollution, free radical damage, toxins, etc. all contribute to giving you grays (Medline Plus). But as one researcher pointed out, it’s odd that some hairs are more affected than others, suggesting that we have more to uncover (New York Times).
Does Stress Cause Grays?
It’s part oldwife’s tale, part contemporary urban legend, that people who stress out go gray faster. But those stories are true sometimes, right? The Daily Mail UK published an article about women starting to go gray younger and younger. But is there scientific proof to back this up?
Well, it would appear that there might be something to the idea that stress causes graying. “Might” being the operative word. Scientists are looking into how stress affects grays and are giving weight to the idea that it might have an affect (Scientific American). But even if stress did play some role, it’s still genetics that really paint those strands silver (New York Times).
Gray hair happens to everyone. It’s the melanocytes in the hair follicles being stopped-up by naturally produced hydrogen peroxide. It’s primarily caused by genetics, but extrinsic factors in the environment and stress can also play some role as well.
While we often view it as a sign of age, it’s natural and, if you ask me, can look very becoming on men and women alike. So, if you’ve got some grays going on, I say: Go get ’em, you silver fox!