Gray Hair Facts
Hair follicles, like skin, bear pigmentation in the form of melanin. For hair, there are two types of melanin: eumelanin (brown pigment) and pheomelanin (black pigment).These are the same melanin types that create the classic stripes of a Tiger or spots of a leopard. Their different combinations will result in blond to brown to dark brown, to black hair colors. The balance is similar to paint mixing with only two colors, and results in the many hair color shades in between blond and black, in all populations of the world.
The hair can grow with a number of combinations of these two pigments and their concentrations are biochemically controlled by their stem cell instruction set, DNA.
Grayness is directly related to melanin loss or deficiency. The average person has roughly a 3:1 active /recessive hair growth ratio. For every 4 follicles, 1 is dead/dying, 3 are active and growing. This growth is not a regenerative process in terms of the fact that a follicle does not keep making hair after hair during its cellular lifecycle; it is a one-time-build. Each hair has a new follicle manufactured just for that one hair growth cycle.
When a hair follicle dies the keratinocyte and melanocytes recede and expire in a pre-programmed physiological manner. The hair falls out and the follicle remains are reabsorbed by the body. During this process stem cells (progenitor cells) which are located at the base of the follicle, begin to build new keratinocyte and melanocytes, leading to the growth of a new hair.
The graying of hair is a result of a disruption in this process – in particular, lack of melanin production. Free radical damage has been highlighted as a possible cause, but scientists worldwide have yet to pinpoint the exact science behind hair graying – strenuous investigation is ongoing to find the causes (there is definitely more than one cause, that fact at least, has been determined).
Our ancestors are the best future indicator, the genetic component to age, related graying is a primary factor in predicting one’s age at graying onset. It is likely one’s parents’ combined average will offer the best guess. However these are not accurate to more than average. Ones may carry recessive genes (as yet unidentified genes) that can affect one’s hair grayness onset and rate.
Hair grayness causes (and aging) really are unfulfilled scientific investigations. Through activities such as the recently completed Genome Project, science has a deeper understanding of our genetic components. In order for us to benefit from this breakdown of DNA, the detail to which we understand its meaning is really the breakthrough that mankind is waiting for.
Modifying our genetic makeup to compensate for our vanity regarding hair grayness may just be the tip of the iceberg. The control of aging processes, that nirvana of the vain, is now on our visible horizon.
Aging and Gray Hair
Is “Gray hair is the new black”? – A recent suggestive headline posed – For the vast majority of the graying population the answer is would be very much “No!”
When we see someone from a distance, we can make few judgments about them except based upon what we see. Traditionally, hair color has been used to ascertain a person’s age, especially when observed from more than a talking distance.
This all changes when we meet someone, or get close enough to them to see other signs of aging such as wrinkles, discolored eye whites, crows-feet and tighter skin – all of which indicate advancing age, but are not necessarily age-related. Facial features mistaken for aging commonly include, wrinkles caused by sun-drying skin exposure, and skin and eye discoloration from tobacco use. Tobacco has a well-documented range of effects that accelerate our age-appearance.
When we interact we exchange information via whole series of communicative devices. The interacting persons will get a great deal more information about each other than at that first glance. But gray hair remains synonymous with age, unless the person is clearly young and has a genetic or physiological impairment that causes this hair color. (See section on causes)
Many people in western society perceive advancing age as advancing weakness or a reflection of personal deterioration. Other societies embrace aging as a noble and respect-deserving stage of life. Gray hair is commonly associated with people of wisdom, and power across all societies.
A Look of Distinction
Note that judges, barristers, senators and senior executives often bear a silver mane proudly and know that it has a representative quality that does not have to be ageist. Vain though they may be, the altering of their hair color, no matter how hard they try to conceal this vanity with expensive hair treatments, is usually not hard to spot.
Most accept that the gray hair is not a disadvantage at all. For those men who are dating, unless one is trying to date well below one’s peer-age group, the graying of one’s hair is seen as a sign of a distinguishing gent, rather than a sign of ‘old age’. Women prefer for obvious reasons, prefer to remain as young looking as possible for as long as they can. Their social upbringing almost demands it in the western world.
When ageism is in play, gray hair, considered from a psychological viewpoint, is perceived as a clear social disadvantage – regardless of gender. People in general know this and tend to try to reduce their exposure to this discrimination –the hair color business is a billion dollar industry.
Causes and ‘Cures’
Genetics are the main factor in deciding hair grayness rate and the age of onset. Our genes carry the stem cell instructions on when to produce growth and cell renewal throughout the body. Hair follicles are just specialized cells and are no exception. Included in this genetic instruction set (our DNA) are the functions of melanin production (of types, eumelanin and pheomelanin). Dependent upon hair type (see ‘facts’ section) the reduction in melanin production advances hair grayness, until production ceases and the remaining hair (the aging process causes hair thinning/loss too) becomes the classic non-pigmented white of the aged.
Potentially, genetic modification might well be a gray hair reversal and prevention method. If stem cells can be controlled by DNA segments then surely we can just pop out a few genes here and there – or just swap a few AGTC (DNA assembly block) sequences around until things read a bit better?
Sadly this is not as easy as it sounds. Identification of the genes that control hair growth has already been made. But the advance of age in humans is still an enigma from a genetic viewpoint. Grayness caused by specific a genetic defect is most likely treatable. But we are in the “gray area” (excuse the pun) of aging.
Finding a “cure” (not considered by many as an appropriate word) to aging is the holy grail of geneticists and sufferers of death or aging anxiety worldwide. Typically those who fear the hair -graying process, also fear aging and the reality of mortality
Widely reported is the connection between stress and gray hair. There does seem to be a measurable relationship between the two, and scientific evidence points towards
David Fisher, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School stated: “It is the gradual depletion of melanocyte stem cells that leads to loss of pigment”. Does stress influence that loss?
It is suggested that stress might cause the body to produce hormones that cause inhibited production of the two melanin types. This has yet to be conclusively proven, yet there clearly is a link because the findings of many studies are concurrent that environmental factors can play a part in accelerating aging and the consequent onset of grayness.
Results of Study
A study of methamphetamine users concluded that they exhibited measurable increases of age-onset signs (including hair grayness), presumed to be related to possibly the increased metabolic rate or the poor cellular health caused by malnutrition. Genetic damage caused by environmental factors such as radiation seems to also accelerate aging processes.
Today’s populations in urban areas and factory environments are subject to a barrage of airborne, ingested and applied toxins. From tobacco smoke – both first and second hand – to hair dyes, our 21st century lives inflict a heavy toll on our hair. These factors can significantly influence hair grayness and its onset.
Genetics can be responsible for a condition whereby hair graying begins at early adulthood, as early as 16-17 years old is not that unusual. As this is caused by genetic variation, only a gene modifying (not available yet) process might be able to delay the onset of graying.
Graying can begin at a surprisingly early age (see causes). However, most men start to show those tell-tale signs at around 30 years, and women usually upwards of 35.
Some people regardless of gender do not start to gray properly until their 50’s. It seems that the greater the black pigment (pheomelanin) presents, the later the overall gray onset occurs. Many black men will not exhibit signs of grayness until into their 40’s
The scientific explanation is varied. Genetic disorders which manifest at early ages are easily explained via DNA examination or disease diagnosis. In these cases gray hair is either a symptom of an ailment, a genetic disorder, or environmentally caused for example by gray hair can be directly attributable to the disorder or disease. Most of the population however, falls into other categories, with advancing age being the clear leader.
Darker skin color seems to have a general correlation with age at graying onset – Asian and black people regardless of gender tend to gray at a later age. Different parts of the body may surprisingly gray at vastly different rates. Hair above the neck tends to gray at a faster rate than bodily hair although this is not universally true. Stress, thought to affect the rate of graying, could cause different patterns of hair graying. The myth that a great sudden shock can make one’s hair go white has been proven to be just that, a myth!
Treatments & Remedies
As mentioned in the causes section, there is no cure for grayness. There is no partial cure, no reversal process. As of today, anything one reads to the contrary is probably an attempt to sell a product – a product that will unlikely do anything but extend ones frustration. The only option is a remedy, and as the name suggests, these are remedial, non-permanent solutions to those who wish to address their graying hair color.
Dyeing hair is the most common approach. Semi-permanent dyes are effective and not so noticeable when careful selection of dye color is made. Once hair starts to gray more heavily, the use of a permanent dye may be the only way to conceal the grayness. Either approach involves repeated use; as hair grows, even permanent dyes have to be reapplied to avoid the emerging gray hair being noticeable.
Use of these methods repeatedly is not a really good formula for hair care in the long term. Many over-users of hair dyeing products have a resulting poor hair condition as the chemicals used to color hair are often corrosive in nature, affecting hair growth rates and damaging the hair structure this can producing straw-like or “wrinkly” hairs – Damage to the cuticle causes elbow-bends or breaks in the hair.
Cuticles in Healthy Hair
In healthy hair, the cuticle is made up of an armor of overlapping shingle-type layers of keratinous tissue. They are coated with natural oils produced in the scalp which to prevent snagging and protect the hair from environmental damage such as low humidity. When hair dyes and bleaches are applied, these shingles break off, the oil is completely removed and brittle, gnarly hair is usually the result.
This dyeing philosophy ironically, has the opposite effect of reducing the self-perceived ageing that the arrival of gray hair imbibes. Spending money on a professional rather than home-dye-kit is rarely, long term, any different effect. Over time, the avid gray hair ‘cover-by-dye’ enthusiast may well find that they look older due to the damage to their hair, than if they had just accepted gracefully that they are getting older.
For those with medical diagnosis of a condition which causes gray hair, the situation is in direct contrast. For these people, there are many remedies – often reverting hair color completely to its former blond/brown/black shade. Vitamin deficiencies are easily diagnosed and addressed. Thyroid disorders, vitamin B12 deficiency are treatable diseases that cause grayness. Grayness caused by Vitiligo, a poorly understood genetic/auto-immune/environmental disorder, cannot at present be cured or reversed.
Give up Smoking!
Tobacco smoking has been long known and proven to produce many aging effects. Chronic smokers of age 30 often look like a 40 year old. Tobacco smoke contains a host of unpleasant and detrimental ingredients. Ones hair, as a living part of one’s body, is just as likely, with tobacco exposure, to suffer alongside other bodily tissues and organs.
Hair graying is accelerated by tobacco smoking/exposure and a strategy to reduce this effect should include serious consideration of giving up smoking or ensuring little time is spent in the presence of a smoky environment, such as a bar. Not only would this reduce the aging effect and hence appearance, but almost certainly will extend one’s life!