Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why Does Hair Go Gray?

Is gray hair genetic — or does stress play a factor? We get to the root of some gray hair myths, and offer simple tips for making the most of your salt-and-pepper locks.

By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH

Just like getting wrinkles, most people think of going gray as an inevitable part of getting older. But what about those people whose hair turns gray in their twenties or thirties — is it stress, or is gray hair in their genes? Researchers have been working to figure out what exactly makes hair turn gray, and if there is anything you can do to prevent it.

Hair starts to turn gray when cells called melanocytes in your hair follicles stop producing the protein melanin, which adds color to your hair. Without melanin, your hair would be white, so gray hair isn't really gray — it’s more of the effect created by a combination of pigmented hairs and white hairs appearing on the scalp together.

There are two types of melanin. Dark melanin, or eumelanin, makes your hair black or brown. Light melanin, or phaeomelanin, makes your hair red or blond. The combination of these types of melanin determines your hair's color and shades of natural highlights.

Researchers are trying to determine why melanocytes stop making melanin as we get older, but they still don't really know. It may be due to the gradual wear and tear of melanocyte cells, a "biologic clock" in our DNA that tells melanocytes when to stop, or some combination of factors.

Can You Prevent Gray Hair?

At what age your hair starts to turn gray is probably determined by your genes. If your parents got gray early, you can probably look forward to the same fate. For now, gray hair is a natural part of getting older for more story at

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