Grey hair is an inevitable part of the ageing process, but why do some people grow natural grey hair earlier than others? Find out in this article.
Silver grey hair is all the rage on social media, but when it happens in your twenties, it’s not quite so cool. Stress, DNA, and specific health conditions can all cause early grey hair. Even though there’s nothing you can do to reverse grey, there are a few changes you can make to slow down the grey hair transition.
☝️DISCLAIMER☝This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Natural hair gets its colour from a pigment called melanin. The type and amount of melanin determines each person’s hair colour. Melanin is produced by melanocyte cells. These cells are located in the (deepest) basal layer of the skin, just above the hair papilla (the bottom part of the hair follicle).
|Hair colour||Type of melanin|
|Black||lots of eumelanin|
|Brown||average amount of eumelanin|
|Red||lots of pheomelanin and small amount of eumelanin|
Melanocytes infuse melanin into the hair shaft, giving it a distinctive colour. Hair goes grey as the body ages because there are fewer melanocytes and melanin production decreases. Air pockets replace melanin in the hair shaft, resulting in silver-grey hair, and grey pubic hair too.
The average age for grey hair varies greatly, and one of the main causes of grey hair in your 20s is genetics. The age at which a person’s hair turns grey is influenced by the IRF4 gene, and one specific variant (rs12203592) is a marker for premature greying.
The IFR4 gene controls that activity of another gene called TYR, which encodes an enzyme that is needed for melanin production. It has been suggested that the rs12203592 variant affects the activity of melanocyte precursor cells, but it’s currently unclear whether this hypothesis is correct.
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In addition to ageing, other causes of grey hair include genetics, stress, nutrient deficiencies, and health problems. These factors affect how melanocytes function and can cause premature grey hair by lowering the production of pigment.
Causes of grey hair
- nutrient deficiencies
- thyroid disease
There are several ways in which psychological stress can affect the hair shaft. The most common hair-related side effect of stress is telogen effluvium, which makes hair fall out about three times faster than usual. In middle age and later, the hair may grow back grey.
In rare cases, hair may suddenly turn white. This condition is known as Marie Antoinette Syndrome, whose hair reportedly went grey overnight before her beheading.
But does stress cause grey hair? In humans, we don’t know. One study in mice showed that, when exposed to stress, their fur turns grey, but whether this is true in humans remains unknown.
Early grey hair is more likely to affect people who smoke according to a 2013 study. It has been suggested that smoking, like air pollution, generates reactive oxygen species (unstable oxygen molecules) that damage the biochemical process of melanin production.
If you’re not ready to go grey gracefully, there are few ways to slow your transition from blonde, red, brown, or black to grey hair. Start by addressing your diet and lifestyle to ensure you are not putting unnecessary stress on your body and genes.
Diet and nutrients for healthy hair
Make sure you get a good balance of vitamins and minerals in your diet. Micronutrients play many essential roles in cellular metabolism and deficiencies are associated with brittle hair, grey hair, and hair loss.
|B, D, E, A||copper, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc|
Give up smoking
Every drag on a cigarette introduces toxic chemicals into your body. This causes stress at a cellular level, releases damaging reactive oxygen species, and increases your risk of many serious health problems, not just grey hair.
Get a health check
Specific health conditions can affect your hair, encouraging premature greying, hair loss, and brittle hair. Thyroid problems and nutrient deficiencies may not be very obvious, but there are subtle signs and symptoms that doctors are trained to recognise.
- Adhikari, K et al. A Genome-Wide Association Scan in Admixed Latin Americans Identifies Loci Influencing Facial and Scalp Hair Features, 2016
- British Association of Dermatologists. Telogen Effluvium (A Type of Hair Loss), 2013
- Daulatabad, D et al. Prospective Analytical Controlled Study Evaluating Serum Biotin, Vitamin B12, and Folic Acid in Patients with Premature Canities, 2017
- Genetics Home Reference. Is Hair Colour Determined by Genetics?,2020
- Shmerling, R, H. Why Does Hair Turn Gray?, 2017
- Schlessinger, D, I et al. Biochemistry, Melanin, 2020
- Zayed, A, A et al. Smokers’ Hair: Does Smoking Cause Premature Hair Graying?, 2013
- Zhang, B et al. Hyperactivation of Sympathetic Nerves Drives Depletion of Melanocyte Stem Cells, 2020