All people are born with a genetic determination for the color of their hair. While this color may not be readily apparent at birth, by one to two years of age, hair color is set. For many people, this color lasts for about 40 years. As people age, they can lose the pigmentation in their hair, causing it to grow out gray or, sometimes, white.
Hair color is determined by the presence of a natural pigment called melanin. Generally, the more melanin present in the hair, the darker it will be. Two types of melanin work together to create hair color: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Pheomelanin is a reddish pigment, while eumelanin can be black or brown. Low levels of brown eumelanin create blond hair and high levels give brown hair. High levels of black eumelanin, naturally create black hair, while low levels create gray hair. It is very rare for a person to be born genetically disposed to have gray hair as their regular color. This is because everyone also has pheomelanin, which easily tints hair with low levels of black eumelanin.
Pheomelanin is very chemically stable. Brown eumelanin is the least stable, and black eumelanin is somewhere in-between. This is the reason why it is difficult to bleach red hair, and bleaching black hair results in red.
The exact genetic factors that determine hair color have not yet been identified with certainty. It is thought to be controlled by two separate genes, and some geneticists say more. In the two-gene theory, one phenotype determines brown or blond, with brown being dominant and blond recessive. This explains how a brown-haired couple can have a blond child.
The other gene is called the red/non-red gene. Non-red means only a limited amount of pheomelanin is produced, and it is a dominant trait. Those with the red gene produce more pheomelanin, which produces a color ranging from auburn to orange, depending on the amounts of eumelanin present. What this simplified genetic model of hair color does not explain is how hair is affected by age. While a few people get darker hair as they get older, most people get lighter hair, eventually turning to gray, silver, or white.
Natural Hair Colors
While most people don’t recognize it as such, white, gray, and silver are natural hair colors. Some blondes have hair that is virtually indistinguishable from the white hair of seniors. Besides aging, some vitamin deficiencies have also been found to cause white or gray hair. Here are the other natural hair colors:
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Auburn hair is a light reddish brown. It is created by brown eumelanin in conjunction with heightened pheomelanin. It is a common color for those with North or West European ancestry.
Black hair is the darkest color possible for hair. It is caused by an excess amount of black eumelanin present in the hair. Although greater amounts of pigments are present, black hair is actually less dense than other colors. Some black hair can have a slightly blue tint, while other black hair has a reddish tint. Black is the most reflective color for hair.
Blond hair can range from near-white (platinum) to dark and golden. Some people of Celtic or Scandinavian descent can have a reddish blond color known as strawberry blond. The amount of pheomelanin is the biggest factor in determining the exact shade of blond. People with more pheomelanin have a more golden color. Blond hair is common in North and West Europeans but is extremely rare in other people. Some children are born with blond hair, but it darkens as the stem cells responsible for creating melanin mature.
Brown is the most common hair color in the world. It is common in native people of every continent. Brown hair tends to be thicker than other colors.
Chestnut is similar to auburn, but is slightly darker and a little redder. It is a common color in Europe.
While hair is very rarely red in the strictest sense of the word, hair can come in several shades where red is the most prominent color. Red hair can be light, or strawberry, to a deep burgundy in color. Red hair is the least common hair color in the world.
Symptoms of Premature Graying of Hair
While most people who reach older ages experience graying of the hair, some people experience graying as early as 20 years of age. In rare cases, children can experience graying of the hair around the age of 10. Officially, graying or whitening of the hair is considered premature if over half of all hair is gray or white by the age of 40.
Hair that is already grown does not turn gray. The pigments are mixed into the hair when it is created in the follicle. Once the pigments are set in the hair, they generally remain in the hair. Gray hair is formed when the pigments are either no longer produced, or produced in lesser quantities, in the hair follicles. Gray hair is created gray from the beginning. As older, more colorful hair, naturally falls out, the quantity of gray hair begins to overtake the quantity of the pigmented hair.
While hair cannot turn white overnight, one rare condition has been discovered that causes dark pigmented hair to fall out at a rapid pace. This is known as alopecia. When the dark hair falls, the white or gray hair remains, giving the appearance that the hair has turned white overnight.
Many people believe that when hair begins to turn gray, other symptoms linked to aging begin with it, as if the body has an “old” switch that has suddenly been turned on. This is not true. The factors that cause gray hair do not contribute to any other symptoms.
Causes of Premature Graying of Hair
As people grow older, hair follicles naturally decrease production of hair pigments. The exact age is determined by genetics. It is estimated, however, that in the U.S., over 40 percent of people have some gray hair at 40 years of age. Some errant white hairs can be created early due to a malfunctioning hair follicle, but this is rare and the follicles usually produce hair with color after the white one falls out.
When gray hair is caused by genetic factors having to do with aging, a process is triggered by two genes, called Bcl2 and Bcl-w. These genes trigger a chemical chain reaction in the body that begins with a lower production of the enzyme catalase. Catalase usually breaks down hydrogen peroxide that normally occurs in the body. The hydrogen peroxide begins a bleaching effect on newly created hair. This specific effect is still being studied in clinical trials.
Melanin is not produced in the hair follicle, but it is used by the hair follicle to put into newly grown hair. Melanin is chemically made from melanocytes that are produced in the stem cells just under the base of the hair follicles. When the stem cells at the base of the follicles die from genetic programming, melanocytes are no longer produced for use by the follicles.
Several factors other than aging have been found to contribute to the premature graying of hair. Some of these factors are genetic, while other factors are strictly environmental. Here are some of the causes of gray or white hair:
This is a genetic condition in which no, or very little, pigment is created anywhere in the body. Albinos have white to pale blond hair and white skin.
Vitiligo is an auto-immune disease that causes hair and skin to lose color, usually in patches. The disorder causes melanocytes, the chemicals responsible for turning into melanin, to be destroyed before they can be used by the body.
An insufficient intake of nutrients through food or dietary supplements can cause hair to lighten. Usually, this is accompanied by the hair being brittle and thin. The most common deficiency that causes premature graying is vitamin B12.
This genetic disorder is very rare and causes the appearance of premature aging. These symptoms usually begin at puberty and by the time the person reaches 40, he or she appears two to four decades older. Graying of the hair usually begins around age 20, but can occur as early as 15.
This condition is caused by atrophic gastritis and parietal cell loss. It is marked by a deficiency of the body to absorb vitamin B12. This condition is incurable and remains for the rest of the patient’s life. While other symptoms overshadow graying of the hair, it is a common occurrence.
Type II diabetes
Recent studies have found a link between type II diabetes to people with dark eyebrows and gray hair. The exact mechanism or reason for the correlation is unknown at this time.
Several disorders of the thyroid gland have been found to cause premature graying of the hair.
Osteoporosis and loss of bone density
Decreased bone mineral density has found to be linked to premature graying of the hair. One study of 293 women who have gone through menopause showed that those who a majority of gray hair on their head before 40 had lower bone density than those without gray hair. A follow-up study concluded that nothing about gray hair causes osteoporosis, so some factor about lesser bone density is responsible for causing gray hair.
This is a rare disorder that follows some viral illnesses. The body produces an antibody to fight the virus that also destroys melanocytes.
Studies have shown that people who smoke tobacco are four times as likely to develop premature graying of the hair than non-smokers. A study of 606 smokers over the age of 30 showed a “significant relation” between smoking and the occurrence of gray hair.
Risk Factors for Premature Graying of Hair
Most cases of premature graying of hair are caused by genetics. Those with a family history of premature graying have a higher risk of developing it themselves. There is nothing that can be done to reduce genetic risk once you are conceived. A few other factors show an increased risk of developing gray hair early in life:
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Thyroid disorders
Prevention Tips to Reduce Premature Graying of Hair
Since premature graying is almost always caused by normal genetic factors, very little can be done to prevent it. For those few cases not caused by genetics, the following tips may help to prevent gray hair:
- Do not start smoking. If you already smoke, quit.
- Adequate calcium can prevent loss of bone density, which has been linked to gray hair. In addition, adequate vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb calcium.
- Adequate intake of vitamin B12 may help to prevent premature graying.
While many people claim gray hair can be caused by stress, no studies have ever shown this to be true. While reducing stress can be very helpful in leading a long, healthy life, it doesn’t do anything to stop hair from graying.
Diagnosis of Premature Graying of Hair
Premature graying of the hair is primarily diagnosed by visual inspection. The condition is unmistakable and a professional diagnosis is usually not necessary. In cases where the individual is extremely young, however, a professional diagnosis is recommended to rule out the graying as a symptom of a more serious disease or condition.
Anyone can have a blood or tissue test done to rule out the possibility of malnutrition or disease, but most people over 25 will find that normal genetics is the culprit and nothing can be done to stop or reverse the graying. Three lab tests that can be done to detect a possible cause of gray hair are a complete blood count (CBC), vitamin B12 level test, and a thyroid function panel.
Treatments for Premature Graying of Hair
No medical treatment exists to stop or reverse the graying of hair caused by genetics. It is conceivable that someday in the future, medical science will unlock a genetic treatment for gray hair, but no such treatment exists today.
When gray hair is caused as a symptom of another medical condition, the gray hair cannot be medically treated. It is only possible to treat the condition. If the condition is treatable, this may reverse the graying of the hair.
The number one treatment for gray hair is artificial coloring. Hair dye comes in several different forms:
This type of dye is also known as tone or toner. It uses hydrogen peroxide to deliver the dye into the shaft of the hair. This dye lasts for approximately 12 – 20 shampoos. Some people don’t like this type because the length is just long enough for roots to begin to show.
This is the traditional method of dying hair. These dyes color the outside of the hair shaft and wash out after 6 – 10 shampoos. Many people prefer this dye because it must be reapplied before roots begin to show.
Permanent color is usually applied by a beautician. It uses a combination of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia to deliver the dye through the hair. Permanent color does not wash out. It must be grown out, and re-dying rarely works as a solution to unwanted color.
This type of coloring was popularized by the “Grecian Formula.” This type of dye works gradually with lead acetate that darkens with prolonged exposure to air. It is a more natural color, as the dyes only slightly affect hair with color, instead focusing on only the grays.
Home Remedies for Premature Graying of Hair
No scientific evidence exists proving that any substance, either eaten or applied topically, can reverse or stop the graying of hair. This, however, has not stopped people from continuing to use natural or herbal products in an attempt to do so. Anecdotal evidence keeps these treatments alive, and some continue to say they have had an effect. In any case, these treatments have shown to cause no harm, so the only losses are in time and money.
This is an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. It is taken by mouth and said to increase the energy of the liver and kidneys. It can also be found in a variety of oils, hair tonics, and shampoos.
Chlorophyll such as that provided by wheat grass is said to strengthen the blood and kidneys, which can stop the graying of hair.
This is a Chinese herb also called He Shou Wu. Its use derives from an 1,100 year old legend of a villager named Mr. He who first used it. It is said that it increases longevity and reverses the effects of aging. It is taken to eliminate gray hair, prevent weakness, treat erectile dysfunction, and eliminate vaginal discharge. It can be found in many over-the-counter gray-hair products.
PABA and folic acid
Many claim that when combining this B-vitamin with folic acid, it restores hair to its original color.
This is a by-product of processed sugar cane. It is mostly sugar, but it also contains several vitamins and minerals that are claimed to produce health benefits. Among these health benefits is the reversing of gray hair.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Washing the hair with apple cider vinegar is said to reverse graying.
Sage tea, used as a rinse, has traditionally been used to treat gray hair for hundreds of years.
This is a very old treatment from India that is harder to accomplish than it sounds. Each finger nail must be rubbed together with another fingernail for 5 minutes. This is said to increase circulation by stimulating the nerves under the nails. The major benefit of this treatment is that it is free.
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“What Really Causes Gray Hair,” AolHealth.Com
“Natural Remedy to Reduce or Reverse Gray Hair?” About.Com
“Going Gray,” Cnn.Com
“Unlocking the Secrets of Gray Hair,” NYTimes.Com
“Children and Gray Hair,” DrGreene.Com
“Gray Anatomy,” WebMD.Com