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Gray hair | Natural versus Premature Graying. What you need to know.

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Gray hair or graying of the hair, also known as canities, occurs naturally with aging at different ages depending on race and ethnicity. Premature graying of the hair, however, can have various triggers, some of which are reversible. Read more...

 

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What is premature graying of the hair?

 

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What is the medical term for graying of the hair?



Graying of the hair is referred to canities or achromotrichia.




Why does hair turn gray?



Before discussing why the hair can turn gray, it is helpful to understand what factors provide pigment to the hair. Pigment in hair is produced by melanocytes in the hair bulb that only produce pigment during the anagen or active growth phase of the hair cycle. During the resting and transition stages, telogen and catagen, pigment is not produced.


The process of graying of the hair is not completely understood but is thought to be related to the loss of melanocytes in the hair bulb which results in less pigment transferred to the hair follicle. The loss of melanocytes is believed to occur with age. There may be a role for oxidative stress on these cells that is the result of pigment production due to free radicals. This oxidative stress may impact the melanocytes. Other factors that can also affect these cells are smoking, nutrition, and exposure to UV light.


Genetic factors also likely play a role. Telomeres are sections of DNA in cells. With age, these shorten and can impact the life cycle of a cell. Telomere shortening in melanocytes is thought to occur resulting in cell death and less pigment production. A reduction in the production of signaling proteins for pigment production and changes in the structure of hair as we age may also play a role.



What is premature graying of the hair?



Graying of the hair occurs naturally with aging at different ages depending on race and ethnicity. The average age for Caucasians to develop gray hair is in the mid-30s, for Asians late 30s, and for African Americans is the mid-40s. Based on these patterns, the definition for premature graying of the hair is defined as before the age of 20 in Caucasians and before the age of 30 in African Americans.



Do all mammals experience graying of the hair?


Not all mammals develop gray hair with age however this is not unique to humans. Chimpanzees and some dogs can also experience the development of gray hair with age.


 

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Why do some people go gray earlier than others?



Environmental and genetic factors are at play in some people's premature graying of the hair more than others. Stress, lifestyle factors such as smoking and UV exposure, nutritional deficiencies, genetics, and even some medications can trigger this process earlier. The conditions associated with premature graying of the hair include:

Oxidative stress can accelerate premature graying of the hair and be impacted by:



Can you stop premature graying?



Some factors associated with premature graying that we can control and others that we cannot. Those predisposed to early graying from a genetic perspective will likely be prone to gray in spite of some lifestyle interventions. However, given the environmental and lifestyle impact on premature graying, it is possible to try to control some of these factors.

Nutritional deficiencies such as Vitamin B12, copper, iron, and vitamin D deficiency cause reversible premature graying. Identifying these deficiencies and supplementing these vitamins can stop premature graying. Smoking cessation and UV protection can also help. The medications associated with premature graying include chemotherapy agents which may mean ceasing these medications is not reasonable.


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