Going Gray The Right Way: Everything You Need To Know About Gray Hair

Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. That was a gray hair in the mirror. Before you panic, here’s everything you need to know about gray hair.

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January 24, 2018
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One day you will find yourself going about your morning routine, when all of a sudden you’ll do a double take in the mirror after applying your mascara.

That second look isn’t because you look amazing (although you do!). No, you spotted a glint of silver in your blowout.

Your first gray hair.

First, don’t panic. Although silver-haired men seem to get all the glory (Anderson Cooper is still bae, y’all), there are plenty of women who make going gray look ultra chic. I mean, have you seen Helen Mirren lately? She’s a total silver foxy lady!

Going gray? You can thank your parents.

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You may have inherited your mom’s gorgeous smile or your dad’s eye color, and you can also thank your parents for your salt and pepper locks. Gray hair can strike at any age, and when it appears is largely thanks to genetics.  

Going gray is a genetically programmed process that appears to have multiple genes that are interacting to start the process,” says Amy McMichael, MD, chair of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  

According to McMichael, the interferon regulatory factor 4 gene (IRF4) plays a key role in when you’ll develop gray hair. IRF4 genes code proteins that affect the immune system and help protect the body against viruses. In addition, IRF4 genes regulate melanin production, which determines skin and hair color and is the pigment made by cells called melanocytes.

“There are two types of melanin,” says Fayne Frey, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of FryFace, an educational dermatology site. These two types of melanin are “eumelanin, which imposes a brown to black color, and pheomelanin, which is a reddish yellow color. Both types are made in melanocytes. Which type and how much of each is genetically determined with a wide variation.”

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Before we’re born, our hair is actually white, because it’s completely free of melanin. Over time though, the melanin begins to color our hair, resulting in each person’s unique hair color. Just as melanin colors our hair when we’re young, we lose melanin pigment as we age, which can result in silver strands.

The BCL gene family, which keeps certain cells from dying by coding a protective outer membrane around the cell, also plays an important role in why we get gray hair. BCL genes may protect melanocytes. When the body doesn’t have a sufficient number of melanocytes, hair may turn gray faster. In one study, BCL-deficient mice experienced graying faster than mice who were not BCL deficient.

A more recent study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center claims to have pinpointed a protein called KROX20 that some scientists believe is responsible for graying hair. KROX20, also known as early growth response protein 2 (EGR2) is a protein that aids in neural crest cell development (these are the cells that end up forming hair and skin, smooth cartilage, and bone, among other things).

KROX20 produces another protein, called stem cell factor (SCF), which is the protein needed for hair color to form. When KROX20 no longer produces SCF proteins, pigment is no longer produced, which results in gray hair.

So does this mean we can reverse gray hair?

Not quite.

The study was performed on mice and has yet to be examined in human subjects. Other scientists and doctors believe it may be a bit too early to determine if SCF proteins may be the secret to keeping colorful locks longer.

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But I’m too young for gray hair!

Most men start seeing their first gray hairs sprout at around age 30, whereas women tend to see them a few years later, at 35.

Any gray hair that occurs before this age is considered prematurely gray hair.

“Stress has been implicated in every possible way with hair loss and the process of graying,”

—Amy McMichael

Aside from genetics, several other factors can also play a role in how early you’ll go gray. Some—like hormonal imbalance, age, and certain environmental factors—are beyond your control. Others, like stress and smoking, may be reduced by lifestyle changes.

Frey says, “There are multiple studies that consistently show smoking linked to premature graying. The exact mechanism of how smoking affects hair pigment is unknown, but an increase in free radical (unstable atoms that can wreak havoc in the body) formation within the hair follicle is one theory.”

As we age, free radical production increases, which also causes an increase in oxidative stress, which is stress that actually changes cellular makeup. As free radicals in the body increase, so does the damage to melanocytes, thereby causing prematurely gray hair.

“Stress has [also] been implicated in every possible way with hair loss and the process of graying,” says McMichael.

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According to McMichael, similar to the oxidative stress caused by smoking, long-term physiologic stress may affect the graying process. These long-term stressors include chronic illness and severe caloric restriction. Scientists theorize that long-term stressors cause oxidative stress, thereby causing melanocytes to die prematurely. However, scientists are still working to prove this theory. So one stressful day at the office is probably not the cause for your gray hair, but a whole year in a seriously stressful work environment might be.

Unfortunately, McMichael says there are no proven methods of reducing or reversing gray hair. “While there are labs that are working on this process, it is not clear that any group really has this figured out.”

If a product promises to slow or reduce gray hair growth, it’s probably too good to be true. Instead, focusing on lifestyle changes is the best way to slow the growth of gray hair.

Limiting stress and stopping smoking has many added benefits besides delaying the graying process. Manage stress by exercising daily or practicing mindful meditation. (And if you’re trying to quit smoking, you don’t have to do it alone. Visit smokefree.gov for information, resources, and support to quit smoking.)

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Help! My gray hair isn’t on my head.

So you noticed a few gray hairs…everywhere on your body except your head.

According to Frey, graying patterns vary from person to person. “Based on my personal experience, I’d say hair on the temporal scalp (above the ears) seems to gray first on many individuals.”

McMichael says that anecdotally, “Some feel that the facial hair grays before the hair on the scalp, but this is not a hard and fast rule.”

What dermatologists do know is that your hair down there will go gray eventually.

Even though you might be totally freaked out, it’s usually totally normal for your body hair to start graying around the same time as the hair on your head.

Sometimes though, gray or white strands in your nether regions do signal a health problem.

If you notice silvery white strands while you’re landscaping downstairs, it could be the result of a severe vitamin B12 deficiency. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anemia, which interferes with red blood cell production, depleting the source of oxygen that most cells need to thrive. Fortunately, with treatment, hair will usually return to its normal color if a B12 deficiency is the culprit.

White piedra, a fungal infection, is another reason your hair may appear gray or white prematurely. White piedra is caused by a yeast-like fungus. While it can occur anywhere on the body, it is more likely to be found in the groin than anywhere else. The fungus attaches to individual hair follicles, giving the hair a white or gray appearance. The good news is that this asymptomatic fungal infection is easy to treat by trimming the affected hair (a great time to do some grooming!) and over-the-counter fungal creams.

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If you want to go gray gracefully…

I only have one gray hair (that I can see). It’s right at the front of my hairline, and it insists on sticking straight up, Alfalfa-style. When I frantically called my stylist, Emilee Phillips, who is the owner of the organic Green Goddess Hair Salon, she told me very sternly not to pluck it no matter how much I wanted to do so.

“The old wives’ tale that plucking a gray hair will cause two more to sprout in its place isn’t true, but you still shouldn’t pluck a gray hair,” says Phillips. “Just like tweezing your eyebrows, over time, repeated plucking will damage the hair follicle so much that it won’t grow back at all.”

So how do stylists recommend caring for gray hair?

Jamie Church Ball, a veteran stylist at Shear Shakti Salon in Boone, North Carolina, says “Styling products depend on what the client is looking for just the same as natural hair, but there are shampoos formulated for gray hair.”

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Ball recommends Oribe products, which has two products that work for gray hair. Oribe Silverati shampoo and conditioner are specially formulated for gray and white hair. This illuminating shampoo brightens hair and removes yellow tones that makes silver strands shine.

Ball also recommends Oribe’s Bright Blonde shampoo, which works for both blonde and silver hair. Many people with lighter skin tones are afraid that gray hair will wash out their complexion, but they needn’t worry. This revitalizing violet shampoo corrects brassiness and yellow tones while brightening natural highlights for hair that is healthier, shinier, and lit from within.

Another way to boost lighter complexions while sporting gray tresses is to wear bold colored clothing. Think rich jewel tones, like Pantone’s 2018 color of the year, Ultra Violet

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While you don’t have to wear makeup to be beautiful, Hope Alfaro, a makeup artist in Durham, North Carolina, shared some of her favorite makeup tips to balance your complexion with gray hair.

“Embrace cool tones,” says Alfaro. “As you embrace your natural gray hair, try new shades like mauves or taupes that compliment the coolness of gray tones. Lipstick and blush with cooler undertones will start suiting you better as well.”

In addition, Alfaro says if you do only have time for one thing in the morning, make sure you don’t neglect your eyebrows.

“If you are in the later stages of graying, your eyebrows and eyelashes may have also turned gray. Even two minutes with a pencil defining your eyebrow shape can make a world of difference to your face.” A few products we love are Glossier’s Boy Brow, Anastasia’s Beverly Hills Brow Wiz Eyebrow Pencil, and Maybelline’s Total Temptation Eyebrow Definer Pencil.

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If you’re not feeling the gray…

Gray hair is totally having a style moment right now. Celebs from Kim Kardashian to Zosia Mamet have paid big bucks to have their hair dyed gray on purpose. If you just can’t jump on the gray-hair trend, you can color your hair to hide the gray. Before you reach for that box of Clairol, there are some things you need to know about dyeing gray hair.

“I can tell you that gray hair is very coarse, which makes it resistant to color,” says Ball. “So your stylist has to formulate the color for gray hair and let it process about 10 minutes longer than normal.”

In addition, Ball says, because gray hair is resistant to color, stylists end up using a double pigmented color, which can end up being pricier than your standard dye job. After the color is applied, your stylist will probably use a developer, which helps open up the hair cuticle so the color can totally penetrate your hair.

Justin Barnett, owner of Justin Salon and Spa in Vero Beach, Florida, says, “regular hair grows up to a half an inch a month so every 4 to 6 weeks, you should plan to touch up your color.”

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One perk of dyeing your gray hair is that color-treated hair is often softer, which makes it easier to style. The downside? Coloring your hair can add up to a big monthly expense.

Whether you choose to color your gray hair or not is totally up to you, but the same styling tips apply to both.

Exposing hair to prolonged high heat from styling tools can seriously damage hair, so always use a heat protectant, like amika’s The Wizard Multi-Benefit Primer, before styling your hair.

“A lady’s grays are life’s trophies. Celebrate your age, wisdom, and accomplishments through your natural beauty.”

—Justin Barnett

Additionally, because gray hair is already coarse, try to avoid washing your hair daily, which can strip your hair of natural oils, leaving hair brittle and dry. Instead, aim for washing your hair every two to three days, and use a dry shampoo in between washings.

“In one way I feel that I shouldn’t encourage women to embrace their gray hair,” Barnett jokes. “Women embrac[ing] their gray hair doesn’t pay my salon bills! However, I do believe that a lady’s grays are life’s trophies. Celebrate your age, wisdom, and accomplishments through your natural beauty.”

So will you embrace your gray strands as they are or will you cover them up? Whatever you decide is totally fine either way.

Because you know what’s really sexy? A woman who’s in love with her own look, even if that includes a gray strand or two.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Martin
Katie Martin
Contributing Writer