Some people seem to hold onto their hair color forever. For them, silver or gray hairs don’t start peaking through until their late forties or fifties. Others, however, start getting gray hair at a young age. But what causes this difference? What makes one person keep their dark locks into middle age, while another starts losing their hair color in their teens or twenties? Is gray hair reversible? The answer to both of those questions depends on the individual.
What Do We Consider “Premature Graying”?
As a society, we praise a beautiful hair color. We associate gray hair with age, and many of us will go to great lengths to prevent it. So much so, that there’s an entire industry built around fighting it. It is normal, however, for your hair to go gray as you age. Typically, white people begin to see gray hairs in their mid-thirties. Asian people usually begin to go gray in their late thirties, and African Americans in their mid-forties. About fifty percent of all people have a significant amount of gray hair by the time they’re in their mid-fifties . Some people, however, go gray much earlier than that. When a white person starts going gray before the age of twenty, or an African American before the age of thirty, we consider this “premature graying” .
Why Does Hair Go Gray?
As we said, going gray as you age is natural. According to Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, this is because of hydrogen peroxide. The reason you have color in your hair is because of cells called melanocytes, which produce pigment. People with brown or dark hair have eumelanin, and people with blonde or red hair have pheomelanin. Both of these pigments are produced along the hair shaft. The cells in our hair bulb also produce a bit of hydrogen peroxide as a metabolic byproduct. An enzyme called catalase breaks this down into water and oxygen. As we age, however, our levels of catalase decline. This allows the hydrogen peroxide in the hair bulb to build up, which damages or destroys our melanocytes . When your melanocytes are destroyed, so too is your hair color.
What Causes Some to Have Gray Hair at a Young Age?
Unfortunately, your hair color (or lack thereof) is mostly due to genetics. This is especially the case when it comes to premature graying. Chwalek says that there is one gene in particular that seems to be responsible. This gene is called interferon regulatory factor 4 (IFR4), and it is important in regulating and producing melanin in hair . Kaustubh Adhikari is a statistical genetics postdoc at University College London. He was the leader of the research team that found the IFR4 gene. According to his research, this genetic variant only accounts for about thirty percent of gray hair . That means that environmental factors account for the rest. But what are they?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most common causes of prematurely graying hair. In 2017, researchers noted that a lack of this vitamin, along with folic acid and biotin deficiencies, are frequent among those who have gray hair at a young age . Vitamin B12 is necessary for healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the cells in your body. This includes the hair cells, and it is possible that inadequate B12 can weaken the melanocytes in your hair. Good sources of vitamin B12 include animal products like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. There are not many good plant sources of B12, however nutritional yeast and fortified cereals can provide some of the vitamins for people following a vegan diet . However, it is generally recommended to supplement your diet if you are vegan. Blood work can be done to rule out a deficiency.
Your thyroid is a gland at the base of your neck that controls many bodily functions, including metabolism. There is some research to suggest that a thyroid issue could also cause your hair to lose its pigment. Both low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) and high levels of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism), have been shown to have a direct effect on human hair follicles, and thus hair color .
An Unhealthy Diet
Research has shown that a diet lacking in certain vitamins and minerals could cause hair to go gray early. Specifically, researchers found that patients with premature graying had low levels of ferritin, calcium, and vitamin D . Another study found that low levels of copper, zinc, and iron also cause hair to go gray . For this reason, it is important to eat a varied, healthy diet. That way, you can ensure that you’re getting all of the vitamins and minerals you need. If you think a deficiency might be your problem, talk to your doctor about getting a blood test so you can take the appropriate steps.
Whether or not stress causes gray hair is somewhat of a debate. A study from 2013 found that there was a connection between stress and the depletion of stem cells in the hair follicles of mice . “So it’s controversial the role that stress has in hair graying,” says Chwalek. “We know that stress creates oxidative damage in the body, and it’s been linked to a lot of premature-aging syndromes. So it’s thought that stress causes oxidative damage, which may cause damage to the melanocytes and may cause us to grow gray earlier.”  Whether it helps or not, decreasing stress can do wonders for your health, so it’s worth doing anyway.
Smoking constricts blood vessels, which can reduce blood flow to hair follicles and cause hair loss. There is also research that shows that it could affect hair color, too. One 2013 study of over two hundred subjects found that half of them had the first appearance of gray hair before the age of thirty. Forty percent of them were smokers, and those individuals began seeing gray hair at the earliest . We know that smoking is a risk factor for numerous other diseases, so this is just one more reason to quit the habit.
Many of the products we use in our hair, like chemical hair dyes and even shampoos, can cause your hair to go gray at a young age. This is because many of these products contain harmful chemicals that can damage your melanocytes. One of these chemicals is hydrogen peroxide, which is present in many hair products. Products that bleach hair may also cause it to eventually turn white .
As we already said, genetics is the main reason you might have gray hair at a young age. If one or both of your parents went gray earlier, you likely will too. “Genetic factors determine when you go gray. There is nothing that can be done medically to prevent this from happening when it is genetically predetermined to happen,” says Dr. Lindsey A. Bordone, a dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors and an assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York .
Can You Prevent Gray Hair at a Young Age?
Unfortunately, as Dr. Bordone, you can’t do anything about your genetic predisposition to gray hair. You can, however, control some of the environmental factors that may contribute to early graying. Eating a healthy diet, decreasing stress, and avoiding smoking are not only good for your hair color, but will keep you healthy in general. This is reason enough to adopt these behaviors- hair color is simply a bonus.