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The Science behind the Grey Hair and Debunking its myths

I was always intrigued by why people turn grey hair at some point in their life.  What is the science behind this? And what is the truth behind the all the myths about grey hair?

Let’s take it step by step.

Scientists have long known that greying is the result of a gradual disappearance of melanin in hair follicles – melanin is the protein responsible for giving hair its color.

Anatomically, each hair on our heads is made up of two parts:

  • a shaft — the colored part we see growing out of our heads and beards (males only!)
  • a root — the bottom part, which keeps the hair anchored under the scalp

The root of every strand of hair is surrounded by a tube of tissue under the skin that is called the hair follicle. Each hair follicle contains a certain number of pigment cells. These pigment cells constantly produce a chemical called melanin that gives the growing shaft of hair its color of brown, blonde, red, and anything in between.

Melanin is the same substance that makes our skin’s color fair or darker. It also helps determine whether a person will burn or tan in the sun. The dark or light color of someone’s hair depends on how much melanin each hair contains.

As we get older, the pigment cells in our hair follicles progressively die. When there are fewer pigment cells in a hair follicle, that strand of hair will no longer have as much melanin and will become a more transparent color — like gray, silver, or white — as it grows. As people continue to get older (and they will!), fewer pigment cells will be around to produce melanin. Eventually, the hair will look completely gray. This is, in short, the science behind grey hair.

And now the myths:

Can you give yourself grey hair?

There is no scientific evidence to back this myth up. One compelling argument that you will often hear is “just look at the USA presidents when they took office and look again when they leave the office!” It seems that all of them will turn greyer during this time. But this is just an observational study and there is no science behind it. Stress seems to accelerate this process, but if you want to blame someone for this, blame your parents; genetics plays a big role in this one. If you want to know how soon you will grey, take a look at your parents or ask them when they started to grey. This is a pretty accurate indicator. What is written in your DNA nobody can change or erase.

If I pluck one grey will it grow 2-3 instead?

You probably heard this before. Just old folklore. There is not one bit of truth behind this. Plucking will remove the hair, but there is no connection with the strands around that hair. And it will not remove the hair follicle. And the new hair growing from that follicle will continue to grow as it was doing before: with no pigmentation! And even worse, sometimes, it can damage the follicle so instead of one hair growing back, you might end up with no hair at all! Just leave it alone, and go with the flow! Grey hair looks great on men past 40!

If I dye excessively will my hair turn grey faster?

No, there is no science behind this either. You can breathe easily now. Just invest in some natural, good-quality products (herbal dyes or hypo-allergenic dyes, without PPD or ammonia) and have fun. But don’t tell your teen kids yet!

Is smoking causing me grey hair?

This one seems to be Plausible. Or even True. You are far more predisposed to to greying hair as compared to an individual who do not smoke. Smoking has been said to play a role in the ageing process of hair since it creates oxidative stress. A study in 2013 showed a link between smoking and turning grey before 30. So if you want to have dark and lustrous hair, consider quitting smoking altogether. The benefits far outweigh the short-lived rush of pleasure when smoking cigarettes!

Is the excessive sun exposure responsible for grey hair?

I would say for this one that is Plausible. Some scientist say No, some say Yes. It’s more about what happens inside of the cells than external factors. Long exposure to sun will create hydrogen peroxide in excess that will eventually play a part in the process of greying but the extent of this in the whole picture is not known yet. Gray hair is more susceptible to sun damage, since it has less melanin. So it doesn’t hurt to wear a hat.

Can white hair turn grey overnight?

Scientifically and medically, this is impossible; there is no mechanism by which hair could organically turn white, either suddenly or overnight. Hair is always dead. Once the hair grows out of the head, it can’t be influenced by any psychological or physiological processes in the body. It would be weeks before the effect of some extreme shock/stress would be visible because only the root would be affected.

But…historically, there were tales of people whom, sentenced to death penalty, turned grey overnight. The best examples that I could find were: the French queen, Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) when led to the guillotine at the age of 38, during the French Revolution, her hair is said to have turned white the night before her execution. This is even now called Marie Antoinette syndrome in the dermatological circles, when someone suddenly turns grey/white in short term.

Another famous example is the English lawyer Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who was canonised and declared a martyr in 1935 by the Pope Pius XI, was executed in the Tower of London in 1535, and again his hair was reported to have turned white before his death. He was opposing the Henry VIII separation from the Catholic Church, opposing thus the Protestant Reformation.

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