All Your Questions About Gray Hair, Answered

woman with gray hair on cloudy sky background

BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy / Byrdie

Like many other firsts in life, there’s a good chance you can remember exactly when and where you were when you spotted your first gray hair. If you felt a little panicked about it, don’t. Gray hair is natural—everyone gets them—and they appear gradually over time.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Howard Sobel is a clinical attending dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital and founder of Sobel Skin Rx.
  • Dr. Zenovia Gabriel (widely known as Dr. Zenovia) is a world leader and pioneer in the field of hormonal dermatology. Through her work treating thousands of patients from all stages of life, Dr. Zenovia discovered one critical common denominator affecting women of all skin types: hormones.

Although there is still a lot to learn about why hair turns gray, we have answers to your most pressing questions. Read on to see what dermatologists Dr. Howard Sobel, clinical attending dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital and founder of Sobel Skin Rx, and Dr. Zenovia Gabriel, have to say about gray hair.

Why Hair Goes Gray

First thing's first: It's important to break down the science behind what makes a hair gray. “Just like skin and eye color, hair is made up of melanin which determines tone and color,” says Dr. Sobel. “As we age, the hair follicles produce less melanin, resulting in the natural absence of pigment which become gray hair.”  

But aging isn't the only cause of going gray. “The reason is multifactorial: genetic, oxidative stress, metabolic, etc.,” says Dr. Zenovia. “Everyone will have different combinations of factors that can contribute to the cause. At this point, we don't fully understand all of the factors that drive this process. Some people will have a strongly genetically driven process, while others might have more environmental and stress related component. You probably would need to have control over all or most of these factors to prevent the process of graying, and we don't even know all of the variables involved yet."

The below are just a few of the reasons people start to go gray:

  • Genetics: As mentioned, your genes are a major factor in when you will start to go gray. Hair follicles produce less color over time as you age, so after it goes through its natural cycle, it’ll start coming in gray at some point, which is influenced by genetics.
  • Stress: There’s still a lot to be discovered about the role that stress plays in going gray. One study found that when mice were under stress, their fur turned gray, but it’s unclear how this relates to humans.
  • Smoking: Research has found that smokers are more likely to experience premature graying.

The Age Hair Goes Gray

There isn’t a magic number for the age when people can start to expect to see some silver strands. “Most graying tends to occur in the 30s, but genetics also play a role,” Dr Sobel says. “I have seen patients in their early 20s with gray hair and those much older, too.” 

While genes have a big impact, there are other factors to consider since people to start to see gray at different ages. “Also, people are subject to different stressors and environmental factors, which can affect the age people start to go gray,” Dr. Zenovia says. 

Can You Prevent Gray Hair or Reverse Gray Hair?

“You cannot prevent hair from going gray, but you can nourish your body to avoid vitamin deficiencies that can lead to premature graying,” Dr. Sobel says. “There seems to be a connection between lack of vitamins D and B12. Supplements and a diet rich in these nutrients (i.e. salmon, lean proteins, eggs, dairy) can help abate early graying. It’s also important to manage stress as this can compromise optimum health and potentially contribute to graying of the hair.” If you need another reason to quit cigarettes, studies have shown that smokers tend to go gray at an earlier age than non-smokers. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way to reverse gray hair. “Once the melanocyte stem cells in bulge region of the follicle are depleted it is irreversible,” Dr. Zenovia says. “Perhaps earlier on in the process when the melanocytes are starting to be dysfunctional, it could potentially be reversed but at this point, there is no way to intervene in these pathways. So practically, we can't reverse it.” 

How to Care for Gray Hair

Once you have more than a few silver strands, it might be a good idea to start switching up your haircare routine. “Gray hair can tend to become yellowish in tone and drier in texture,” Dr. Sobel says. “This is easily fixed by using a purple shampoo one to two times a week to return its vibrancy and offset yellowing.” Matrix Total Results So Silver Purple Shampoo ($20) is a color-depositing purple shampoo that neutralizes brassy or yellow tones in silver and blonde hair.

You’ll also want to upgrade your conditioner game. “Invest in a hydrating, nourishing mask appropriate for your hair type to tame frizz and coarseness,” Dr. Sobel says. “Less sebum is produced as we age, resulting in drier, coarser hair texture (similarly to skin becoming drier and more dehydrated as we age).” The ultimate twofer, the Better Not Younger Silver Lining Purple Butter Hair Mask ($35), fights off brass while deeply nourishing locks. 

The Final Takeaway

Though experts still don’t have the full picture on why hair turns gray, there are steps you can take to stop premature graying. Once you start seeing silver, upgrade your haircare regimen and give your gray streaks extra TLC to keep your hair healthy.

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