Premature graying of hair, also referred to as ‘canities,’ is a worrying prospect for many. Indeed, studies have shown that people tend to perceive gray hair as an unsettling and unattractive indicator of aging.
While gray hair is correlated with aging, premature graying is a common experience. People whose hair turns gray in their 20’s and 30’s may suffer from poor body-image, as they’re likely to worry about ‘looking old before their time.’
Also, some people perceive gray hair negatively. Given the importance of social mobility and sexuality for wellbeing, it’s understandable that many of us want to prevent the hair from graying – particularly when still a teenager or in young adulthood.
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When trying to prevent or reverse gray hair, it’s important to consider the origins of the problem. Gray hair is caused by an interaction of genetic, hormonal, nutritional and environmental factors. In some cases, it’s possible to reverse premature gray hair. In other cases, it may only be possible to hide the signs of graying hair.
While there’s no ‘one-sizes-fits-all’ cure, the information in this guide will help you design a personalized regimen for managing this common cosmetic problem.
Ethnicity plays a crucial role in determining when you’re likely to be affected.
According to Philip Kingsley, it’s a common misconception that dark-haired individuals go gray earlier than light-haired individuals. Instead, dark-haired individuals are more likely to notice gray hairs earlier – because it’ll stand out more easily in brunette hair.
For many years, the 50/50/50 rule has been used to estimate the prevalence of gray hair in society. The rule states that “at age 50 years, 50% of the population will have at least 50% gray hair coverage.” Other studies suggest that the 50/50/50 rule overestimates the prevalence of graying hair in society.
It is difficult to know the ‘real’ figures for early-onset gray hair specifically because few studies have been conducted in this area. However, we do know there are differences in the rate of gray hair growth between older and younger people.
Those who go gray prematurely will experience gray coverage at a faster rate compared to those who go gray later in life. This suggests that reversing the situation is an even more pertinent issue to those facing it in early adulthood – because they’re more likely to experience a rapid and total loss of hair color.
Going gray before 20 years of age is considered premature in Caucasian populations. In Asian populations, going gray before the age of 25 is considered ‘early.’ In African populations, this figure rises to 30 years of age.
The cultural differences may be explained by genetic factors – as we’ll go on to discuss.
How Does the Hair Age?
Aging hair appears gray because most of its pigment has been lost.
Once all pigmentation is lost, the hair stands will eventually appear completely white in color. Gray coverage may develop gradually or suddenly – depending on the individual. ‘Salt-and-pepper’ hair is a term often used to refer to the gray ‘highlights’ found in people whose hair is transitioning.
Gray hair will often feel coarse. This is because the scalp produces less sebum to coat the hair strands. Although it feels coarse, it is finer in texture than pigmented hair, so is more prone to damage.
Trichologists know that gray hair occurs due to a lack of pigment in the hair shaft, but they do not know precisely how the pigment deteriorates. It may be due to oxidative stress, damage to DNA, or exhaustion of the enzymes involved in melanogenesis (melanin production).
The rate our bodies’ age is determined by internal and external factors. As such, pigmentation loss is probably caused by an interaction of genetic and environmental factors. To aid an effective understanding, these interactions will be discussed below.
There appears to be a strong relationship between hair and hormones. For example, it’s known that an excess of the male hormone dihydrotestosterone can cause the hair-loss condition androgenetic alopecia – or male pattern baldness.
It’s known that certain hormone disorders cause gray hair by interfering with the body’s ability to produce pigment.
Hyperthyroidism (over-active thyroid) and hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid) are known to cause early-onset gray hair in some people.
These conditions can be quite severe, so will often be treated with medication. Encouragingly, studies have shown that certain thyroid medication will help patients regain pigment in their hair.
It’s often not an indicator of an underlying illness. Therefore, only a tiny proportion of people who’ve gone gray prematurely will have a thyroid condition.
Some pregnant women experience a sharp increase in gray hair growth during pregnancy. While scientists don’t fully understand why this occurs, it’s likely that the hormonal shifts associated with pregnancy play a role.
Pregnancy often exacerbates pre-existing thyroid conditions, so this may explain why certain women see such a dramatic increase in gray hair growth during pregnancy. Pregnancy-related graying of the hair is a temporary condition for many and usually settles down a year after pregnancy.
Gray hair is a heritable trait. This means that we can often predict the age we’ll go gray by asking our parents or grandparents about their own hair.
A study found a gene for gray hair. IRF4 is a gene associated with hair pigmentation, but it’s also responsible for hair graying. Crucially, this gene is more widespread in Caucasian populations.
This makes sense, as Caucasian individuals are statistically more likely to go gray at an earlier age. Experimenters concluded that participants’ premature graying could be explained by 30% by genetics, and 70% by external factors.
While genetic inheritance can account for premature graying to a certain degree – it’s not the ‘magic bullet.’ As previously mentioned, there’s likely to be an interaction of various intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
In addition to the ‘gray gene’, some inherited conditions predispose individuals to gray hair.
Individuals with albinism do not process melanin in the same way as other people, so they lack pigment in their skin, eyes as hair.
Vitiligo is another genetic condition related to pigmentation. Sufferers of vitiligo will often have patches of lighter skin. When these patches occur on the scalp, hair in the infected area will appear gray or white. These patches can occur at a very young age, including in childhood.
There are also several other scarce genetic conditions that can cause premature gray hair. These include tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, and Waardenburg syndrome.
These conditions primarily cause hearing loss, vision problems, and skin conditions. As such, they’d be diagnosed long before any graying hair started to appear.
It’s important to remember that, ordinarily, early-onset grayness does not indicate the existence of an underlying illness.
Nutrition plays a key role in maintaining our skin, hair, and nails. Certain vitamins and minerals can impact on the production of melanin in our cells.
Vitamin D is known to be involved in the production of melanin in our bodies.
It is found in fish and nuts, but the best source is natural sunlight. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency may lead to pale skin and early-onset gray hair.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is known to cause generalized pigmentation issues in skin, hair, and nails. People deficient in this vitamin are likely to look pale and sicky, have white brittle nails, and will develop a significant coverage of gray hair. Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in vegans, or those following a very restricted diet.
In addition, people with HIV/AIDS require higher amounts of this vitamin, so may easily develop a deficiency if they don’t tailor their diet accordingly. Encouragingly, vitamin B12 deficiency can be treated relatively easily. This means that the gray hair associated with this condition can usually be reversed.
It should be noted that vitamin B12 deficiency is most commonly caused by a genetic, autoimmune disease called pernicious anemia. This disease prevents vitamin B12 from being properly absorbed in the stomach, so supplements are usually required.
There are also various other genetic disorders that prevent proper absorption of vitamin B12 in the stomach. Crucially, this demonstrates how genetic and nutritional factors interact together to cause premature gray hair.
Various environmental factors can influence early-onset gray hair. The common thread attaching most of these factors is that they create something called “oxidative stress” in the body. It is this oxidative stress which appears to be responsible for the deterioration of pigment in our hair – as will be explained.
Heavy smokers and sunbed users are more likely to be affected. Also, individuals who make poor nutritional choices and those who are obese are more likely to go gray early, too. Individuals who are subject to prolonged physical or emotional stress may also be more likely to go gray earlier.
To understand how these environmental factors influence gray hair, it’s important to understand the concept of oxidative stress. When we breathe in oxygen, our bodies metabolize this oxygen by producing free radicals.
Free radicals are essential for health, but, if too many build up, they can start to damage our bodies. Typically, the body employs antioxidants to protect itself against free radicals.
If all is working well, there will be little oxidative stress because the bodies’ resource of antioxidants will keep the number of free radicals under control – thereby maintaining equilibrium.
Problems occur when the body does not have enough access to antioxidants. Old-age, smoking, obesity, stress and pollution-exposure can all reduce the availability of antioxidants within this body. As such, these environmental factors can lead to oxidative stress within the body.
Oxidative stress damages our DNA and inhibits the bodies’ ability to carry out critical chemical functions – such as melanin production. As such, oxidative damage is considered to be one of the key predictors of early-graying hair.
Oxidative damage is a complicated process that can involve several different environmental factors at any one time. Moreover, there may be a genetic element to oxidative damage.
Some people might be genetically better at storing antioxidants within their body – thereby safeguarding chemical functions such as melanin production. This is something that scientists are currently investigating and may go some way towards explaining why some people lose pigment in their hair earlier than others.
As mentioned, stress may precipitate premature graying because it seems to contribute towards oxidative damage – which inhibits melanin production in the hair shaft. Also, there’s another way that stress may inhibit melanin production.
This is produced in our hair follicles to a small degree. Typically, enzymes in the body will break down this chemical so that it’s neutralized.
As we age, or when we are under periods of high-stress, these enzymes drop in number, so hydrogen peroxide builds up. Crucially, scientists at Bradford University have found that this buildup of hydrogen peroxide interferes with melanin production – thus causing gray hair to develop.
This study suggests that keeping stress levels down may help to prevent early-onset gray hair because it will encourage the development of enzymes needed to protect against hydrogen peroxide build-up.
Nonetheless, some scientists are particularly skeptical about the role of stress in gray hair – and suggest it’s nothing more than folklore.
Interestingly, there does seem to be a close relationship between stress hormones and the hair-growth cycle more generally. In this light, a causal relationship between stress and hair pigment does not seem far-fetched.
While it is possible to reverse gray hair in some cases, most treatment plans will involve ‘management’ rather than ‘reversal.’
Adjustments That Can Reverse Graying Hair
There are two scenarios in which reversing prematurely gray hair is a straight-forward process. These are as follows:
There are two scenarios in which prematurely gray hair will usually reverse itself:
Being well-prepared for change can help us to cope better with the aging process.
Here are some quick tips that could be beneficial:
As such, individuals could tailor their lifestyle choices to mitigate the risks brought on by certain environmental factors. Given that gray hair is a highly heritable trait, it’s not always possible to interfere with its presentation.
Many people choose to embrace gray hair – and ‘grow old gracefully.’
Indeed, in 2017, 2018, and 2019, silver/gray hair was listed as one of the top-10 hair trends of the year. However, for those who consider gray hair “a marker of social devaluation” – disguise is likely to be a key concern.
There is a multitude of hair dye products targeted at covering gray hair. Men looking to disguise gray hair tend to favor shampoos with small amounts of hair dye in them. These allow the user to build up the color slowly, so it looks as natural as possible.
Given that gray is most visible at the hair-part, women with small amounts of gray at the roots may find that highlighting or lowlighting hair near the parting is enough to disguise their gray hair. Indeed, highlights and lowlights can enhance gray hair. Alternatively, women looking for a lot of gray coverage will typically opt for a root-to-tip color change.
Also, there are natural hair dyes available such as Henna.
Gray hair is often brittle so requires a good degree of care and attention. Moisturizing shampoos and conditioners are highly recommended as these will coat the hair shaft and protect it from breakage. Because gray hair is fragile and brittle, it’s more likely to tangle. For this reason, shorter haircuts are generally favored.
Perming hair is not recommended as this can cause gray hair to discolor. In addition, smoking can also cause gray hair to turn a yellowish tinge. However, discoloration can be managed by using a blue-tinted shampoo if necessary.
Finally, gray hair is more vulnerable to sun damage than any other hair color, because there is no melanin in the hair shaft to protect it. As such, it’s vital to protect gray hair with shampoos and sprays that contain a high SPF.
While early-onset gray hair can be reversed in a few specific cases, haircare is likely to involve managing – rather than reversing – the gray. And please understand that plucking out your white hair will not resolve the situation!
This guide has provided a comprehensive introduction to the topic of early-onset gray hair – which has included details of the various genetic, nutritional, hormonal and environmental causes of gray hair.
Crucially, gray hair is often caused by a variety of factors, so this should be considered when trying to manage its development. Whether reversing, covering, embracing or caring for gray hair – it’s hoped this guide will help you do so with confidence.
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