Hair is a defining character of mammals and an extension of human aesthetic sense. It is keratin filament that grows, and re-grows, from follicles that are scattered throughout our bodies. Numerous factors affect its formation, structural variation and overall health. However, few of them are androgens, genetics and nutrition.
Since ancient times, the parallel connection between hair and our bodily aging process has intrigued thinkers. Science has solved many mysteries of hair growth, replenishment and change with age, but many remain yet confusing.
Here, we briefly highlight the natural course of hair growth with human aging and death, discovering the causes of white hair, along with some tantalizing myths and preventive measures to keep hair damage-free and young at an old age.
When does hair get old?
There is no benchmark age for hair to turn white. Hair color is drastically affected by bodily health status, ethnic heritage, diseased conditions, hormones and stress. On average, though, white people get white hair in their mid-30s as opposed to Asians whose hair lose its pigment in the late 30s.
Black American people get white hair in mid-40s generally. Any hair turning grey way earlier is termed as ‘prematurely grey hair’ with some background pathology in action or plainly genetics.
Why hair changes its color to white?
Hair is originally white. It gets pigment, melanin, through specialized cells called melanocytes. These cells pump this pigment into the hair follicles that gives hair a characteristic color. Melanin is of two predominant types: Eomelanin (dark pigment) and Pheomelanin (light pigment).
These combine in various proportions and produce a huge range of hair textures. The amount and combination of various melanin types are determined mainly by our genes.
Melanocytes start their secretion even before our birth and their function declines with our age. Generally, melanocyte’s function decreases 10-20% every 10 years after age 30. However, how melanocyte function decreases with age is still a mystery.
Scientists believe that our hair follicles have a ‘melanogenic clock’ that regulates hair pigmentation with age and hence, minimizes it with aging. Grey hair is a precursor of white hair, and contains less or no melanin at all due to inactive melanocytes.
The early scientific belief
Before scientific advancement, scientists thought that hair turned grey merely due to less or no production of melanin. Each hair has a separate melanin supply in the body.
With time and age, this supply lessens, producing grey hair, which culminates in complete inability to supply the pigment to the hair, thus causing white hair permanent.
The new scientific belief
Scientists have recently discovered a breakthrough in the aging process of hair. It is now believed that hair lose their pigment not due to decreased production of melanin, but increased production of hydrogen peroxide.
With old age, hydrogen peroxide collects in the hair follicles and cannot be degraded as the enzyme catalase loses its ability to do so. Hydrogen peroxide acts as a bleaching agent and whitens hair from inside out. Hence, the main culprit is the failure of the enzyme catalase to work in old age.
What actually causes white hair in humans?
There are multiple causes that contribute to hair aging, each of them playing their own specific roles for targeting melanin in their own manner. Here, we look at a few that contribute most.
Role of genes
The pattern of hair color is determined by the family tree since greying of hair is largely dependent on genetics. Genes pretty much determine the melanogenic clock that rings right when our parents’ hair turned gray, so we follow their trademark.
If your hair is prematurely graying or turning white without any disease, stress or hormonal disruption, then perhaps, your DNA is to be blamed. Of course, your off-springs will continue the same genetic path for hair graying as you did.
Having white hair does not always mean that you carry a disease or bodily disruption, but they are just following a set code of instructions from our genes.
Ethnic background is another factor responsible for gray/white hair. It differs among races and for Caucasians they go white in mid-30s while people from the Asian continent start developing white hair in late 30s. On the other hand, African-Americans tend to grow white hair in early or mid 40s.
Less vitamin intake
Balanced diet is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Several diet-related factors influence hair health. Vitamin deficiency is one of them, specifically deficiency of Vitamin B12.
If you take Vitamin B12 in your diet and it does not get absorbed, the condition is called “Pernicious Anemia” and requires medical treatment. In another case, lack of intake of Vitamin B12 can accelerate the graying of hair even at a younger age.
Therefore, one major clinical symptom of Vitamin B12 deficiency is unusual white hair. To obtain the optimum amount of this vitamin, we should incorporate eggs, yogurt, cheese, fish, beef, etc. frequently in our food.
Even when thyroid function is a little subnormal, the effects can be felt on the scalp. To get treated, visit a doctor and switch to healthier diet options that contain iodine. Examples of such diet are fish, carrots and bananas.
Taking care of health and following an active life can reduce hair fall and hair graying drastically. Unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking play a major role in premature hair whitening.
Unfortunately, these effects are reversible and the outcomes are very fruitful. Quitting smoking will decelerate whitening of hair by 4% in young people. Genetic factors and disease cannot be reversed at will, but unhealthy lifestyle can. The healthier you are, the better it will show on your skin and hair.
It is said that you are what you eat. Hence, eating a well-balanced diet will provide you all the nutritions your body needs. This complements the overall health of the body, including our hair too.
Intake of nutrient-rich diet will keep you fit and healthy on the outside and inside, and combat whitening of hair to a great extent. In fact, it will causes hair to shine with their natural color even at a vulnerable age.
Intake of fluids
Hair need as much fluid for optimal growth and nourishment as any other part of our body. What you drink casually or what harmful drinks we are addicted to can serve as a harbinger to hair discoloration.
Be it merely tea and coffee or infamous alcohol, too much of everything retards hair growth and ages hair fast. It is preferable to limit intake of specific fluids when hair starts whitening prematurely. Also, fried food and excessive oil intake in any manner is never advisable.
It is undeniable that our emotional health is as important as physical and mental well being. Emotional shock due to bad news, heartbreak or an accident can cause havoc for hair health. Although this concept is controversial, scientists still believe that such a mental shock can temporarily retard hair growth.
The underlying complex mechanism is still debatable, but the relation between trauma and going gray can never be underestimated. The effect varies from person to person, but incidence of alopecia areata have been reported after several trauma exposures.
While “overnight greying of hair” is an unbelievable happening, there exists a medical condition that people can misjudge as an overnight hair graying. Although rare, this disease causes loss of hair from some or all parts of the body instantaneously.
It is medically defined as non-scarring, loss of body hair from underlying causes such as inflammation. Hair loss can also occur in a patchy manner from the scalp, lowering the person’s self-esteem and emotional well being.
Hair growth may resume afterwards, but the new hair would have no pigment – they will most likely turn grey or white prematurely.
Certain irreversible autoimmune or genetic diseases can have severe outcomes: one of them is hair graying and hair loss. The uncommon genetic disease, called Weber’s syndrome, is a collection of symptoms that indicate senile behavior at an early age for teenagers.
In other words, a person as young as 20 who carries Weber’s syndrome will look like a 60s-old-man. Obviously, hair will grow white at this early age due to rapid aging, ending in early death.
Hormones are released from endocrine organs of our body and keep the bodily functions in a complex way. A small imbalance in secretion or function of hormones can badly disturb the overall body balance. However, scientific research and findings have proved that hormonal problems could add to graying of hair.
Medical conditions that results from these hormonal imbalances such as osteoporosis and diabetes can highly accelerate hair aging too. The root cause is the decreased melanocyte cell pigmentation which results from high or low hormone levels in the body.
As mentioned earlier, several irreversible medical conditions harm hair growth and pigmentation. One of those is vitiligo. It is a form of albinism that leaves patches of hair and skin un-pigmented.
The underlying problem is with the immune system which mistakenly attacks its own scalp rather than a foreign antigen. Another interpretation involves the failure to get rid of accumulated hydrogen peroxide in this disease, hence white hair results.
Whatever be the major cause, vitiligo is a massive pigmentation disorder involving the melanocytes. It leaves the body hair, patched with various shades of grey and white.
Anemia is one condition that is linked to countless bad outcomes. Anemia itself can occur due to many reasons, such as less production or high destruction of blood cells by the body, infections, prolonged bleeding, ulcers and nutrition deficiency.
Must Read:- Does anemia cause white hair?
Less red blood cells, and hence less hemoglobin, will lessen blood supply to each hair follicle and damage hair growth. The outcomes can be premature hair greying. Anemia, therefore, should be treated as soon as it has been diagnosed to counter all side effects and save the hair from losing its pigment.
Prolonged free radical damage
Ongoing scientific research has led to another discovery of reasons people go gray. When the body is under continued stress, cells produce certain by-products that acts locally and systemically in order to overcome the stressful situation.
This derives free radicals within the cells, which are unstable and highly harmful molecular bodies, that keep eroding the cellular function is not removed. It is discovered that these free radicals influence the melanocyte function and induce bleaching of hair roots.
It has been commonly observed that constant stress can accelerate hair whitening by minimizing melanin production. Science has observed the same thing and it has also been expressed in most people handling stressful jobs.
Stress and White hair – Let’s Clear The Fact
With a hectic routine, tension of exams and stress about tight deadlines, greying of hair does seem an automatic phenomenon. Scientifically, the confusing connection between mental stress and hair aging has reaped many theories.
For one thing that is true: Stress does cause hair to go white. It has been proven with the help of many experiments that the main governing factor for the hair aging in every individual is his/her genetic make-up and overall health status. Stress can only partly accelerate or decelerate hair graying.
The mechanism of how stress causes hair whitening is still unknown. Many studies revealed that wherever the stress is generated in the body, the melanocytes migrate from hair follicles towards the area of stress, i.e. damaged tissue.
Hence, lack of melanocyte means lack of pigmentation in the hair. The more the level and duration of stress, the more apparent will be the outcome in terms of hair un-pigmentation. Also, stress is also known to kill body’s stem cell store.
Stem cells are nascent cells that mature into any kind of cells needed by the body. Lack of stem cells also lessens the production of new melanocytes, thus hindering rich hair pigmentation.
To know more about the relationship between stress and white hair, you can read this article :- “Does Stress Govern The Problem of Hair Color? Do you Agree or Not?”
Common Questions and Myths about white hair
There are many myths associated with hair greying. Most of them are heard and practiced across the globe without any substantial verification. Let’s have a look at few of the most interesting myths of hair growing white.
Can hair whiten overnight?
‘Hair turning white overnight’ has not been witnessed, although the phrase is used idiomatically. In contrast, hair can whiten rather quickly due to some background reasons, but in its natural course, hair turns white slowly with time and age.
The production of pigment gets degenerated over time and results in grey, then white hair. There is a condition called Canities Subita in which hair whiten diffuse very quickly, but still, not overnight.
Then there are many nutrient deficiencies, autoimmune syndromes and diseases like alopecia areata, which contribute in premature graying of hair, but these factors have never been reported to whiten hair overnight or in just a day.
Does plucking away grey hair grows more back?
Sadly, many people believe that once a grey or white hair is plucked off, many will start growing in its place. Science has its reasons to prove this myth wrong. Microscopically, only one hair can grow in one hair follicle.
So if you pluck one grey hair from the follicle, it will never grow back more than one grey hair in its place. But the best choice is to cut the grey or white hair, and not pluck, since plucking can damage the hair follicle and perhaps no hair will grow from it again. Or in the least, try artificial chemical-free hair color.
To know more myths of gray hair, read this article of “Top 10 Gray Hair Myths, What Actually The Myths Reveal?”
What to do when grey hair grows the first time?
If you are a child, teenager, adult or aged person, when you suddenly locate few grey or white strands of hair, you can get really depressed about what to do at first. Haphazard management of greying hair can tarnish hair health and growth.
The matter needs to be dealt with responsibly and smartly. At first, don’t be sad and decide if you want to cover up your silver hair or let them show. If you want to cover up, choose a hair color sensibly and try an ammonia-free dye.
Avoid hair plucking as it can damage hair follicles – rather, cut your grey hair carefully. Also, do not neglect your diet. Remember, your hair is still the same, only the pigment is gone. Therefore, don’t forget to incorporate vitamins and proteins in your routine intake.
How to stop white hair from coming back
Prevention is always better than cure. Taking a smart and easy preventive measure can save many years of regrets of graying hair. The following are few of them. Learn more about white hair treatment.
Increase mineral intake
Minerals are needed in small amounts by the body, but are crucial for our health in many ways. In terms of hair, melanin is required for pigmentations and for melanin to function appropriately, copper is required.
Hence, balanced diet is the solution to all health problems. Copper works with an enzyme to transform tyrosine to melanin. Also, Zinc, like copper, is an integral mineral required regularly for hair health. Switch to green vegetables, sunflower seeds, chicken, wheat, eggs, beef, etc. to boost your mineral intake.
Get rid of stress
Stress can not only affect the body mentally and emotionally, it can also damage hair internally. To avoid premature graying of hair, avoid stress as much as possible. This can be done by being proactive and taking things positively.
Exercise can be very helpful too, along with a good diet. Yoga and meditation can also be the solution. Trying to ward off stressful situations is very comforting in many ways for the human body. Thus, lower down stress levels by busying yourself with other constructive activity as much as possible.
Incorporate fresh juices
Taking freshly prepared juices is an amazing way to keep the body hydrated. This does not include soda water and alcohol. Excessive caffeine-products like tea and coffee should be avoided when possible. Try to eat or rather drink fresh fruit juices regularly to help hair glow from inside out.
It is reported that carrot juice makes hair healthy and delays hair whitening. Fruit juices must be a major portion of your daily food intake.
Get more iodine
Iodine stabilizes thyroid function. Thyroid hormones are necessary for body’s balanced metabolism. Hence, increasing iodine intake is a good way of keeping the body in tune, especially the hair.
Add fish in your weekly menu and try to opt for iodize table salt for cooking and seasoning. Iodine can overcome rapid greying of hair as in one’s 20s or even 30s.
Oil and massage
Oiling hair every once in a while brings back the healthy shine and regulates the blood supply of hair follicles, thus improving hair growth and stability. Amla oil is very famous for hair health. Massaging hair with amla juice and lemon juice stops hair graying to a great extent.
Also, freshly crushed amla fruit is a natural hair conditioner that can be massaged in the white hair over the scalp to combat depigmentation. Avoid chemicals in shampoos and other hair care products and shift towards natural oils and fruits for hair massaging.
New research in hair care
The previous research that showed the real reason for hair going white was well-established. Hydrogen peroxide bleaches hair roots and turns them white because the enzyme that degrades accumulated hydrogen peroxide is no more available.
Recently, though, scientists have extended that research and luckily found a brand new way to treat greying hair roots and de-pigmented skin, as in the case of vitiligo.
Although the treatment is mainly cosmetic, it will solve white hair problem of many in the future and improve their social life and self-esteem. The treatment is nothing but an agent that removes excessive hydrogen peroxide from the hair follicle when applied over the skin.
It is called an active compound of UVB or PC-KUS and is an alternative form of pseudocatalase, an enzyme that kills extra hydrogen peroxide.
The good news is: PC-KUS has lately successfully treated discolored skin and eyelashes of vitiligo patients. In the future, the treatment will be able to re-pigment the lost black hair to grow for countless people across the globe.
Scientists have recently discovered a gene responsible for white hair. The study involved over 6000 individuals across different race. They include Europeans, Latin Americans and Africa-Americans. According to the research, gene was found to be responsible for graying of hair. And the gene responsible is termed “IRF4”.
It depletes melanin from hair follicle, which causes hair to start developing gray color. Also, Europeans were found to possess more of this gene that causes graying of hair than any other race. Read more in detail:- Gray Hair GENE Found: Can Graying be Stopped?
Hair is precious to all, be it any gender and seeing them turn into a different boring color can be very upsetting. Although hair aging depends largely on uncontrollable factors like genetics, the real deal is to be aware of the damaging contents and take preventive measures in order to keep the hair young even in a senile age.
Staying updated with the latest research and taking action to combat greying hair problems are two ways to contribute towards making the most of your understanding of hair aging.