Whether you’ve noticed a few stubborn gray hairs appear in your 20s, can’t figure out why your boyfriend is graying so fast in his 30s, or you sprouted a full head of white ones seemingly overnight in your 50s, there’s a multitude of reasons behind why your hair changed hue. Here, we delve into all the possible reasons that extra salt is peppering your hair. (Sorry, we couldn’t help it!)
First, how does hair turn gray?
While trying to figure out the antidote to gray hair, scientists discovered the naturally occurring mechanisms within humans that cause pigmented hair to lose its color. As we get older, the pigment-forming cells in our hair simply stop producing pigment. This likely occurs from good old-fashioned “mechanical” dulling over time: Each strand of hair has a life cycle — typically one to three years — and when it reaches the end of that cycle, it sheds and a new hair strand grows in its place. When the new hair grows back in, it must produce pigment-forming cells all over again, and this happens each cycle again… and again… and again. You get the point.
Additionally, hydrogen peroxide — that same chemical we use to purposely bleach our hair — naturally occurs in hair follicles, according to a 2009 study published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. As we age, this hydrogen peroxide builds up, blocking the production of melanin that provides the pigment in our hair. Hence, a gray hair forms.
So, we know what happens within our bodies to cause silvery strands to emerge. Now, let’s break down the possible root causes for our newfound grays.
Cause 1: Aging
Obvious, we know. But as we mentioned above, the passage of time has a direct correlation with graying hair. In some dermatology circles, the rather “neat” 50-50-50 rule has become accepted: By age 50, 50% of the population will have 50% gray hair. But, this rule has been debunked by a 2012 worldwide survey that found 6 to 23% of the population, aged 50, can expect to have 50% gray hair.
Cause 2: Ethnicity
Your ethnicity also plays a role in how early you’ll become a silver fox. Scientists have found that gray hair sprouts earlier in Caucasians (who start graying in their mid-30s), followed by Asians (late 30s) and then African Americans (mid-40s). Of those groups, the hair color to get hit the hardest, earliest is redhead Caucasians. Sorry guys!
Cause 3: Genes
You can thank your parents and grandparents for your gray-hair timetable. Scientists believe that genetics play a large part in when you start graying, so if your parents sported salt-and-pepper locks early in life, you likely will too.
Cause 4: Illness
Some autoimmune and genetic conditions, such as anemia, vitiligo, and thyroid disorders, could be to blame for graying. Check with your doctor to see if you have an underlying medical condition that is causing grays to grow.
Cause 5: Lifestyle
Yep, your diet impacts your hair! Poor nutrition could affect melanin production. Scientists believe people suffering from B-12 deficiency will experience premature graying, so including foods rich in vitamin B-12, such as shellfish, fish, and meat, can help you avoid unnecessary early-onset grays. You can also include a B-12 supplement in your diet! Keep an eye out for food containing protein and amino acid phenylalanine as well, which also help melanin production.
And here’s yet another reason to kick that smoking habit: Smoking has been linked to premature graying in people 30 years old and younger, according to a 2013 study.
Is stress a cause of premature graying?
This has been widely debated. Though a direct link between stress and graying in humans has yet to be proven, stress has been found to play a role in how hair responds to certain body-taxing situations, such as hair shedding during illness or how hair grows back (sometimes another color) after chemotherapy. In fact, when hair shedding, aka telogen effluvium, occurs, the hair tends to grow back with less pigment and will eventually turn gray. So, stress could contribute to graying, but there is no direct link.
In the end, we’re sorry to break it to you, but the likelihood you’ll experience gray hair sometime in your lifetime is extremely high. Exactly when you’ll go gray, however, depends on various factors, many of which are out of your control. What is in your control: Whether you choose to embrace your gray or dye it — no judgments here!