I spotted my first gray hair in my early 20s. Each time I visited my longtime hairdresser, she grew more and more concerned with my stress levels. Given the myths and misconceptions surrounding what causes gray hair, she was right to ask. My 20s were definitely stressful. However, I soon realized that my gray hair was likely not caused by stress but genetics. The more I looked at the hair of the maternal side of my family, I started to wonder if my gray hair was hereditary. I eventually asked my mom about when she saw her first gray hairs sprout from her scalp, and her experience was similar to mine.
She calls the early graying in our family “the Spencer gene,” which helps me feel close to the women who came before me. With my personal experience going gray early, I wanted to learn more about what causes hair to prematurely gray. To get some insight (and scientific facts), we talked to two experts, Marisa Garshick, MD, and trichologist Helen Reavey. Keep reading to learn more about what causes hair to go gray.
Meet the Expert
Why Does Hair Go Gray?
So why does hair go gray in the first place? For starters, our hair strands are packed with melanin, and board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, tells Byrdie the loss of it as we age is why we start to see gray strands sprinkled throughout our hair. “Hair turns gray, also known as canities or achromotrichia, as a result of the loss of melanin, which can occur with aging and may be partly related to genetics and possibly related to environmental factors,” she tells us. “As we age, our hair follicles may produce less melanin, so the hair that grows out is without pigment and appears white or gray.”
Helen Reavey, trichologist and founder of Act+Acre, agrees. However, she says we should rethink how we see gray from a hue perspective. “First things first, there is no such thing as gray hair,” she tells us. Reavey says that once hair loses its pigment, the hair is completely translucent and appears white. You might be asking, “Well, why does my hair look gray?” You can attribute that to the percentage of natural hair color left on the strands. “The “gray” tone is actually due to the percent of natural hair color left and mixed in, causing many different shades of “gray,” she explains.
"A person usually begins to 'gray' between 28 and 40 years old," says Reavey. “The reason for this is that the melanocytes begin to slow down and produce less melanin. This is part of the natural aging process.”
Why Do Some People Go Gray Earlier Than Others?
If you’re like me and have been watching gray hair sprout up since your late teens or early twenties, you may be wondering if something is wrong. There are a wealth of reasons for premature graying that including genetics, medical history, and even how you eat and care for your body, but most of the time gray hair shouldn't be a cause for concern. “Premature graying is thought to be genetic and may even be related to a specific gene known as interferon regulatory factor 4 (IRF 4), which may help to regulate melanin production,” Garshick tells us. “Additionally, there are some genetic conditions that may be associated with premature graying." A 2019 study found that people who went gray prematurely were more likely to have a family history of it, have a history of eczema or asthma, and many were vegetarian. They were also more likely to be overweight and report stress and alcohol consumption.
For those who think of gray hair as a stress-related condition, based on studies there is some evidence that a version of stress can play a role in when we see our hair turn gray. A small 2013 study found that smokers were more likely than nonsmokers to experience premature graying, likely due to oxidative stress. In addition to genetics and lifestyle, Garshick says studies suggest vitamin deficiency can be a player in premature graying. A 2017 study found that those experience premature graying were more likely to have a vitamin B12 deficiency as compared to controls. This may suggest that maintaining adequate B12 could help prevent premature graying, according to Garshick.
Can You Stop Premature Graying?
Unfortunately, premature graying isn’t something you can stop, but Garshick says maintaining a healthy lifestyle may help. So, according to the previously mentioned studies, that means giving up smoking and getting more B12 in your diet. B12 is naturally found in eggs, salmon, tuna, and low-fat dairy products like milk yogurt, and cheese. If you have a vegetarian or vegan diet, getting more B12 via food will be more of a challenge. However, there are supplements that can help.
Whether you're learning to love your hair with gray sprinkled in or are opting to color your hair until you're ready to go gray, updating our hair care routines as we age is important. "Like any part of the body that's aging, we need to give it more moisture, water, and nutritional support," Reavey tells us. In addition to supplements, incorporate hydrating scalp and hair treatments into your routine to keep your hair—no matter the color—healthy and thriving.
Before making any lifestyle changes or using supplements, it's advised to check in with a healthcare provider to make sure you’re on the right track.
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Daulatabad D, Singal A, Grover C, Chhillar N. Prospective analytical controlled study evaluating serum biotin, vitamin B12, and folic acid in patients with premature canities. Int J Trichology. 2017;9(1):19-24. doi:10.4103/ijt.ijt_79_16