Why Do We Go Gray? A Scalp Expert Explains All
The discovery of your first gray hair is an emotional experience. Shock, horror, desperation, resignation…chances are you’ll feel one (or all) of those emotions. But we’re here to remind you to take a deep breath, put down the hair dye, and stop freaking out.
First of all, gray hair is totally hot right now (see: the numerous editors and models who have purposely opted for silvery strands, and also, hi Joan Didion, who is the new face of Céline, and Linda Rodin, who is a total bad-ass in general). Second of all, there are some things you can do to prevent them—but first, you need to understand exactly why they happen. We spoke with Elizabeth Cunan Phillips, a trichologist a.k.a. scalp expert over at the Philip Kingsley clinic in NYC, and asked her to explain the science behind going gray. Keep scrolling to see what she said!
Because it happens naturally with aging, going gray can be seen as a rite of passage—just like getting your first job, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, retiring. But here’s an interesting fact—most of the times, the “gray” you’re seeing isn’t actually a hair pigment, but instead a color caused by a combination of normally pigmented hairs, interspersed with white hairs, Phillips says. In other words, your “gray” hairs are really just white hair mixed in with your non-grays—just pull one strand apart and examine it for proof.
As for the exact science, unfortunately, Phillips says it’s still murky for now. However, we do know that your hair contains two types of pigments, or rather melanin: eumelanin, which is dark brown or black, and pheomelanin, which is a reddish yellow. They combine to make a wide range of hair colors, from super light blonde to midnight black. Gray hair, then, is simply hair with less melanin, and white hair has no melanin at all. “The cells that produce hair color are formed at the bottom of the hair follicle,” she explains. “However, the exact mechanism that causes the pigments to change is still not fully understood.” (You can read more about how your hair processes melanin here.)
So—now onto the part everyone is really dying to know. What exactly causes us to go gray? Phillips says it’s a bunch of things. Nutrition is one of them, as well as hormonal factors, illness, and stress, all of which can deplete your body of vitamin B. Turns out, numerous studies have shown that a lack of vitamin B can turn your hair white prematurely. Yikes. While aging and nutrition might be common causes of going gray, there’s another one that you’re not going to like to hear: genetics. “Genetics play a huge role—if either of your parents turned gray early, it’s likely you will too,” Phillips says. “Whether or not you stop producing melanin is completely based on genetics, so if you’ve noticed early gray hairs, your parents likely started getting grays around the same time.”
Back to the vitamin B thing—make sure you’re getting it in the form of meat, eggs, or dairy, or add it to your diet via vitamin supplements. “Healthy foods feed your hair the same way that they nourish your body,” Phillips says. “Focus on protein at breakfast and lunch, keep hydrated, and choose healthy snacks, like yogurt, fruit, and nuts.”
The rest is common sense. To reduce the risk of outside factors, like stress, malnutrition and illness, to affect your hair color, focus on exercising, eating healthy, and trying to keep your stress levels to a minimum.
Luckily, if gray hairs aren’t your thing, there are tons of products out there that are specifically designed to cover them and hide them—here are some of our favorites for your root area. Phillips explains that since these are semi-permanent in nature, they’re less harsh on your hair and make them a safer alternative to permanent dying.
But, let’s be real—most women out there will battle grays with a quick trip to the salon. Which is fine, but Phillips says it’s important to remember that dyed hair is more vulnerable to damage, so you need to take the right steps to hydrate and care for your strands afterwards. She recommends a pre-shampoo deep conditioning treatment, like Philip Kingsley’s Elasticizer ($95). “Use it three days before and also after bleaching or highlighting, and then once a week after,” she says. “It gives a rush of mmoisture inside the hair cuticle and gives it silkiness, suppleness, elasticity, bounce, and strength.”
And if you are rocking your grays loud and proud? Remember that natural gray hair has tendency to be corase, dull, and develop a yellow tint, so make sure you’re sleek and silvery by using a brightening shampoo and conditioner, like Philip Kingsley’s Pure Silver ($34) collection, Sachajuan’s Silver Shampoo ($28), or Pantene Pro-V Silver Expressions Shampoo ($5).
What are your feelings towards silver strands? Do you embrace them, or will you try to hide them for as long as possible? Sound off below!