You're brushing through your hair when you see it — a little gray hair making its first appearance. Whether you reach for the tweezers or decide to embrace the change, that first gray hair is often a memorable moment for many women.
Some women may begin going gray in their 30s or 40s. But for others, the process may begin as early as when they're 20 years old.
For some women, hair can be a form of self expression. When it begins to turn gray, some women think nothing of it or even realize that they love their new silvery strands. But for others, it can feel frustrating or unfair, especially if it happens earlier than expected.
Your age when you first notice gray hair depends on a number of factors, some of which are out of your control. Here's why some women gray earlier — while others get to hold onto their colorful strands for longer.
What Causes Hair to Turn Gray in the First Place?
Whether you rock brown, black, red, or blonde hair naturally, your hair color comes from a substance called melanin, which is made by hair follicles (tiny structures in your skin that produce and grow hair). The color of your hair depends on the distribution, type, and amount of melanin — all of which lives in the middle layer of the hair shaft (called the cortex).
Sure, there is a wide range of shades out there from ash blonde to midnight black. But, fun fact: There are only two types of hair color pigments — dark and light. These two blend together to form these shades.
Melanin doesn't produce at the same rate forever. As you get older, your hair follicles make less of it, which leads to less color and, eventually, graying hair.
Another reason your hair may turn gray is related to its chemical processes. The cells in your hair naturally produce a small amount of hydrogen peroxide. Normally, an enzyme called catalase breaks down the hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen.
However, as you get older, you produce lower amounts of catalase, which allows the hydrogen peroxide to build up. This buildup can damage the pigment-producing cells, leading to gray or white hairs.
In women, graying usually begins right around the temples and then moves toward the top of the scalp. As it gets lighter, it may eventually turn white. Your body and facial hair may also turn gray — but often later than the hair on your head.
Factors That Impact How Early Your Hair Turns Gray
Gray hair is a natural part of aging, and it's inevitably going to occur at some point in your life. However, the process may begin earlier for some women than for others due to a variety of factors. Some of them are preventable — but many of them are not.
For the most part, you can thank your parents and grandparents for your gray locks. The primary — and most scientifically-sound — reason for gray hair is in your genes. This is especially true if you go gray before 20 years old, which is referred to as premature graying.
If your parents developed gray hair at a young age, chances are you will, too — and there's not much you can do about it.
Race also plays a role in how early your hair turns gray. For instance, gray hair tends to occur earlier in Caucasians but later in Asians. African Americans may go gray later, too, with the average gray strand appearing around 43 years old.
Parents love to blame the stress of raising children for their gray hair. And while it's a little misguided to place all of the responsibility on them, stress may actually play a role in how early your hair turns gray.
The correlation between stress and gray hair is a bit more controversial than the role of genes. Though researchers sometimes go back and forth on this one, it's likely that it plays at least a minimal role.
The theory begins in your sympathetic nervous system, which is activated during stress. Whether it's during a fight-or-flight situation (like finding a spider in your bed) or normal stress (like being overworked on the job), the sympathetic nervous system can do permanent damage to cells called melanocyte cells, which are responsible for coloring your hair.
Once melanocyte cells are gone, they're gone for good — and you're left with hair stripped of its color that has turned gray.
As if you needed another reason to reach for fruits and veggies over chips and salsa, poor nutrition can actually cause nutritional deficiencies that may lead to gray hair.
A deficiency in the following nutrients may cause graying:
- Protein (fish, poultry, dairy, nuts)
- Vitamin B12 (fish, poultry, eggs, milk)
- Copper (shellfish, seeds, and nuts)
- Iron (seafood, nuts, beans, fortified cereals)
- Zinc (red meat, poultry, beans)
Graying is also associated with unhealthy habits, including alcohol consumption and smoking. Preventing gray hair is just one among many reasons to take care of your body, eat healthy, and kick those unhealthy habits once and for all.
On occasion, gray hairs can be a sign of illness, such as thyroid disease or alopecia areata (a common autoimmune disorder). If you have other tell-tale signs, such as balding patches, let your healthcare provider know. However, don't panic — these are rare and little cause for concern.
Though the connection is less clear, certain environmental factors may play a role in how quickly you go gray. For instance, pollution and ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun may cause oxidative stress, which has been linked to various forms of aging (like wrinkles). This can lead to a buildup of hydrogen peroxide in hair follicles that can cause grays.
Preventing What You Can — and Embracing What You Can't
Finding that first gray hair may be shocking, which is a perfectly natural reaction. While it's important to keep your body as healthy as possible (for reasons that go beyond the color of your hair), remember that it's normal to develop gray hair as you age.
Whether you choose to dye your hair or rock the silver vixen look, it's important to do what makes you confident and happy. Everyone will go gray at some point or another — but it's up to you to decide how to react to those silver strands.
Do you have questions about ways to stay healthy and prevent signs of aging, including gray hair? Call 610-738-2300
to find a primary care provider at Chester County Hospital
Learn about other health-related hair concerns, such as hair loss
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