Body Talk: How Gray Hair Turns Gray

It’s time to face the inevitable. Whether you’re 20 or 50, gray hairs are either in your present or your definite future. No, it’s not a sign that you’ve been through intolerable stress, and no, it’s not necessarily an indicator of how many children you’ve had to raise (quit blaming your kids for your gray hair, parents). Whether you’re in high school or a steady career, that lovely and colorful hair could drop the ball and go gray at any time. It’s not so traumatizing as it sounds, and the biology behind it is pretty simple. Let’s take a look.


The Science

To understand why hair turns gray, you’ll have to learn four new words: shaft, root, follicle, and melanin. Don’t panic. Each is simple enough on its own, and together they map out what happens when hair turns gray.

  • Shaft: The colored and most visible part of the hair on our heads
  • Root: The unseen part of hair that keeps it anchored under our scalps
  • Follicle: The tube of tissue under the skin that surrounds the root and has pigment cells
  • Melanin: The chemical produced by pigment cells that provides the color to the shaft

As humans age, the pigment cells in their hair follicles gradually die off. Fewer pigment cells mean less melanin, and the shaft will develop a more transparent color as it grows. Thus, you have white, gray, or silver hair produced instead of the red, brown, black, or yellow that it originally was.


The Blame Game

Okay- so if we can’t blame our kids for giving us gray hair, then what determines when those pigment cells die? Some people develop gray hair as early as during high school, while others maintain a full head of luscious color on through their 40s. The answer? Your parents. Well, really, your grandparents. Your genes determine when you start losing pigment cells, so the best guess you have is to check photographs of your grandparents when they were young. If they started going gray in their 20s, you get to look forward to that delightful transition as well. However, it can take over 10 years for all the hairs on your head to transition to gray, so you have plenty of time either way.


Wear it With Pride

Given the fluctuating trends in hair color and the now-popular style of dying your hair gray before you ever get there naturally, there’s no shame in having a head chockfull of salt-and-pepper. Some people choose to dye their hair back to its original color when it turns gray, and others let the gray hair flow. How you handle the death of the pigment cells in your hair follicles is up to you- just know that you’re certainly not alone, and we think you look great either way.