Why Does Hair Turn Gray Over Time?
And can you reverse this process?
Our bodies are constantly changing, and with time, our skin and hair change, too. Let's focus on the latter. As we age, hair often thins or falls out altogether, and virtually all women experience color fading. But why, exactly does hair turn gray? Here, our experts break down why this happens and what it means in the context of your health.
Why does hair turn gray?
Graying is, ultimately, a natural process. "As we get older, the cells in our hair follicles that produce melanin (pigment) gradually reduce, causing our strands to grow in unpigmented or white," says Anabel Kingsley, a consulting trichologist and the brand president of Philip Kingsley. She notes that "gray" is not an actual hair pigment. In reality, it is a color that results from the normal pigment of your hair blending with white. "Your hair color turns from gray to white when all hair pigment cells stop being produced," she explains.
Dr. Tess Mauricio, a board-certified dermatologist, says that health factors are also part of this equation. "Some health issues, such as thyroid disease and vitamin deficiencies, can [impact] hair stem cells negatively and cause premature graying," she notes. Do you experience chronic stress? Data suggests emotional, environmental, or physical stress or a nutrient-deficient diet can cause premature graying, she adds. Otherwise, she continues, your hair is likely determined by your genetics—meaning, if your parents started graying at an early age, you probably will, too.
Is it possible to prevent hair from graying?
While the graying process can start at different points in people's lives, vitamin B—or a lack thereof—is known to play a role. "Various studies have shown that a lack of vitamin B can cause hair to turn white prematurely," Kingsley says. Supplementing this nutrient could, therefore, delay the process, if vitamin deficiencies are a root cause. Ultimately, though, multiple forms of stress and illness are to blame, which is why Dr. Mauricio recommends living a relaxed, balanced, and healthy lifestyle to ward off early onset.
Can you reverse graying hair?
"We technically cannot reverse graying hair, because once the hair is produced by the stem cells from the hair bulb, the amount of melanin pigment is already set (meaning the hair color is set, as well)," Dr. Mauricio says. The dermatologist notes that unless you color your hair, gray hair can't turn darker. There is, however, one exception: "If hair is graying from emotional, environmental, and physical stress from specialized diets or it is caused by a reversible disease—like vitamin deficiency or thyroid disease—then new hair can be produced with more pigment."