Your body has millions of hair follicles, or small sacs lining the skin where hair grows. These hair follicles contain a pigment called melanin that determines what hair color you have, which can vary based on ethnicity and genetics.
Over time, your hair begins to lose that pigment and starts to turn gray or white. So gray hair isn’t bad; it’s a normal part of the aging process. Typically, graying begins around the following ages:
- Caucasians: mid 30s
- Asians: late 30s
- African Americans: mid 40s
Some people, however, may experience graying even earlier:
- Caucasians: 20
- Asians: 25
- African Americans: 30
While the primary cause is usually genetic, premature graying may also be a sign of stress, nutritional deficiencies, disorders of the scalp, hormonal disorders or another disease that should be addressed.
What causes premature graying hair?
Melanin is what gives hair its color, and is continuously released from melanocytes that live at the hair follicle opening. With aging, melanocyte activity slows down or stops completely. Once the hair shaft stops receiving pigment, it starts to lose its color and turn gray.
Factors that can cause premature graying of hair include:
- Genetics: If you have a history of premature graying in your family, you have a higher chance of getting gray hair earlier in life.
- Nutritional deficiencies:
- Smoking: Smoking and exposure to other environmental toxins can cause you to start graying early.
- Stress: Studies have shown that there is a connection between stress and depletion of stem cells in the hair follicles of mice. Chronic stress can thus contribute to the early graying of hair and even cause hair loss.
- Vitiligo: This is an autoimmune disorder that causes melanocyte loss because the immune system “misfires” and attacks the scalp rather than an infection.
- Alopecia areata: Also an autoimmune disorder, this condition causes hair to fall out in patches, especially the hair that still has color. This may lead to “overnight” graying where the gray and white hair that was already there become more obvious.
- Thyroid disorders: Hormonal changes caused by thyroid problems, such as hyperthyroidism (increased thyroid hormone levels) or hypothyroidism (decreased thyroid hormone levels) can cause premature graying hair.
- Neurofibromatosis (Von Recklinghausen disease): This group of inherited diseases causes tumors to grow along nerves and abnormal development of bones and skin.
- Tuberous sclerosis: This is an uncommon, inherited condition that causes benign (noncancerous) tumors in multiple organs (including the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, lungs and skin) and may be associated with early graying.
- Medications: Certain medications can cause early graying of hair:
- Chloroquine (used for malaria)
- Mephenesin (a muscle relaxant)
- Phenylthiourea (used in DNA testing)
- Triparanol (used to reduce cholesterol)
- Dixyrazine (used to treat various psychiatric disorders)
- Topical medications, such as dithranol, chrysarobin and benzocaine-resorcinol (used for the treatment of psoriasis)
How can premature graying be treated?
Treatment of gray hair largely depends on what is causing it. Ways you may be able to reverse, slow down or prevent further graying include:
- Medical treatment: Premature graying caused by medical conditions can be managed by treating the underlying cause. If certain medications are causing early graying, you may be able to discontinue them after speaking to your doctor. Your doctor may also alter your dosage or prescribe an alternative medication.
- Diet: Maintaining a balanced diet is key to maintaining good hair health. Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Antioxidants decrease inflammation and free radicals. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals (zinc, folate, iron, selenium, copper and vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12) can help delay graying in addition to improving overall health.
Other tips for promoting healthy hair include:
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Sashin D. Premature Graying: Reasons, Options. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/features/abcs-premature-graying#1
Kumar AB, Shamim H, Nagaraju U. Premature Graying of Hair: Review With Updates. Int J Trichology. 2018;10(5):198-203. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290285/