For most of us, grey hair is inevitable – up to 23% of people will have half of their hair turn grey by the time they turn 50.
Of course, many aren’t bothered by a few grey strands. And over the past several years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in celebs and influencers embracing their natural grey hair – or even intentionally dying it to achieve a fashionably silver style (see: Kim Kardashian). But it’s far more common to want to prevent or cover grey hair.
Whether you decide to embrace the look or cover it up, getting your first few greys can be a bit unsettling. What’s happening to your hair? And if you’re not up for wearing silver strands, can you reverse the trend and prevent grey hair altogether?? Read on for everything you need to know.
Why Does Hair Turn Grey?
If you’re worried that an extra-stressful event could make you go completely white overnight, take a deep breath – that’s not exactly how it works. In reality, going grey is generally a gradual process.
Here’s what really happens: Every strand of hair on your head grows from a follicle – a tube- or tunnel-shaped structure in your scalp. Each follicle contains pigment cells (melanocytes), which generate melanin, the pigment that determines the color of your hair. As you age, your pigment cells gradually die, which causes each strand of your hair to contain less melanin, making it more transparent. Grey hairs are actually clear, but they can look white, grey, or silver depending on how they appear against the rest of your hair and how light hits them.
You may first notice grey hairs at your temples, and then progressively toward the top of your scalp. Eventually, it will affect your entire head of hair. However, it’s a gradual process, and it can take years –in some cases, more than a decade – to go completely grey.
The natural color of your hair – brown, blonde, red, or anything in between – makes no difference in your likelihood of going grey. However, grey hairs are generally more noticeable in dark hair.
The Causes of Grey Hair
Grey hair is most often caused by the natural aging process. However, premature greying – when hair whitens earlier than expected — can be a result of several different factors. To learn how to prevent hair from turning grey, it’s a good idea to understand why it happens in the first place.
1. Aging and Genetics
Aging is the most common cause of greying hair; as your hair follicles produce less melanin –your hair will grow in grey. This commonly begins at around age 35 but can vary based on your specific genetics. Some people will notice grey hairs (or even go completely grey) as early as high school, while others will be well into their 40s before they notice a silver strand or two.
If you want a clue as to when you’ll go grey, look at both sides of your family tree – greying isn’t exclusive to just one side of your lineage. Consider if and when either of your parents went grey, and you’ll have a reasonable idea of when you might start to see some silver.
Can stress cause grey hair? While one stressful event won’t immediately shock your hair completely white, research shows that stress can lead to more greys.
First, stress can trigger a condition called telogen effluvium, which causes your hair to shed about three times faster than it normally would. If your hair follicles are already generating silver or grey strands, this expedited hair loss/growth cycle can lead to the production of more grey hairs.
In addition, recent research demonstrated that stress can lead to more grey hair in mice. Specifically, the study put mice under three types of stress: mild, short-term pain, psychological stress, and restricted movement. In all three situations, the mice experienced significant loss of melanocyte stem cells – the cells that produce melanin in the hair follicle. With fewer melanocyte cells to produce melanin, new hair growth in the mice appeared grey.
While this study was limited to mice, it suggests that there likely is a link between stress and greying hair, even in humans.
3. Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause your hair to whiten. A lack of vitamin B12, for example, is one of the most common deficiencies linked with premature greying. Low levels of B12 are often seen alongside deficiencies in folic acid and biotin.
Premature greying has also been linked to deficiencies in:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B5
It’s also possible for your hair to lose its pigment due to certain medical conditions and illnesses. For example, research shows that thyroid-related disorders, including thyroid disease, hyperthyroidism, and hypothyroidism, can cause early greying.
Autoimmune conditions, in particular, have been linked to the development of white hair. In these conditions, the body’s immune system attacks its own cells – including hair cells. This can cause a loss of pigment and, as a result, grey hairs.
Medical conditions and autoimmune diseases that can trigger grey hair growth include:
- Neurofibromatosis (Von Recklinghausen’s disease)
- Tuberous sclerosis
- Alopecia areata
Researchers have found a link between smoking and the onset of grey hair growth before age 30. Because smoking restricts blood vessels, it can reduce blood flow to the hair follicles and lead to hair loss. In addition, the toxins in cigarettes can damage the hair follicles, leading to premature grey hair growth. Ultimately, that means smoking can lead to thinning and greying hair.
Can Grey Hair Be Reversed?
If you want to learn how to stop grey hair naturally, your best bet may be to focus on leading a less stressful life. A study by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons found evidence that grey hair caused by stress can turn back to its original color if the stressor is removed.
The researchers believe that hair must reach a threshold before it turns grey. If you are in your 30s and 40s – when hair is near that threshold based on your age and genetics – stress can push your hair over that threshold and cause it to turn grey. If you remove the stressor, you may see your hair transition back to its natural color. However, you likely need to be biologically near that threshold for the science to hold up. If you’ve been grey for many years, reducing stress probably won’t have an impact on your hair color.
Home Remedies for Grey Hair
Wondering how to get rid of grey hair? You’ve probably found a range of home remedies that promise to help darken hair that has turned grey on the internet. Most include ingredients that are designed to act as a natural dye, like black tea, henna, coffee, and potato peels. However, DIY remedies can produce mixed or unexpected results, especially if you already have color in your hair. Often, they will result in a warm red or orange hue, rather than the natural tone you were hoping for.
Plus, grey hair coverage can vary based on your original hair color and the percentage of your hair that’s already turned silver. For example, grey hair isn’t as visible in blonde hair, so highlights can be sufficient to target and camouflage grey patches. Grey hair stands out more prominently against dark hair, however, so brunettes typically require more full coverage. Ultimately, for the best results, consult with your stylist about the most effective color and care as you begin to see greys.
Techniques to Avoid
Some common recommendations for dealing with grey hair can actually be harmful. For example, you may be tempted to simply pluck new greys you see. However, repeated plucking can actually damage the hair follicle and lead to permanent hair loss. If you want to get rid of greys, coloring your hair is a better option.
You may choose to grab a box of hair dye to cover up those greys, but that’s not the best approach for a couple of reasons. One, just as over-processing or over-coloring can damage normal, healthy hair, it can even more harshly affect grey hair. Some people find that their silver strands become dry and coarse – and that coarseness can make it harder for color to penetrate. You may have to allow the color to sit on your hair for longer, causing damage. If you’re dealing with coarse hair, it’s important to talk to a professional stylist about how to properly color and care for it.
And speaking of professionals: The look you’ll get by working with a colorist will beat a store-bought style every time. Dye works differently on different hair shades — including grey — so that lovely shade of summery blonde or chestnut brown you see on the box might not be exactly what winds up on your head. Whether it’s choosing the right all-over color for your hair and skin tone, incorporating highlights, or creating a funky fire-and-ice look, a stylist can create a custom color plan that’s tailored to you. No box can beat that!
How to Prevent Grey Hair Naturally
While in some cases you can reverse grey hair, it’s not a guarantee – so you may be better off learning how to prevent grey hair naturally. Here are a few tips:
1. Address Potential Vitamin Deficiencies
Because your hair can turn grey as a result of certain deficiencies, such as a lack of iron, B12, or vitamin D, start by having a conversation with your doctor. Proactively pinpointing and addressing any deficiencies now can help make sure your hair doesn’t change color prematurely. This may involve taking supplements or changing your diet.
2. Learn to Better Manage Stress
It’s a cliche for a reason: Research shows that stress can trigger premature greying. Aim to reduce unnecessary stressors in your life, or learn to deal with stress in productive, positive ways through, for example, exercise, deep breathing, or meditation.
3. Quit Smoking
Because smoking can lead to prematurely greying hair, ditching the cigarettes can boost your chances of maintaining your natural hair color for longer.
4. Eat a Nutrient-rich Diet
You can’t exactly trigger or stop grey hair growth based on your diet, but eating certain foods can help mitigate the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can lead to white hairs. Lentils and chickpeas, for example, are good sources of vitamin B9, or folate. Salmon can provide vitamin D, and tuna, trout, and sardines all offer a healthy dose of vitamin B12. In addition, walnuts are an excellent source of copper, which can aid melanin production in your hair.
5. Avoid Hair Products With Harsh Chemicals
Harsh hair products, from hair dyes to shampoos, can contain ingredients that decrease the hair’s natural melanin, such as hydrogen peroxide, which can lead to early greying. Take inventory of your hair care routine and opt for natural, non-damaging products. Plus, by choosing a hair cleanser that protects your hair and keeps it moisturized, you can ensure it looks healthy even when it begins to grey.
Keep in mind that when and how quickly your hair turns grey is determined largely by something you can’t change: genetics. However, by learning how to prevent grey hair naturally, you can keep hair looking younger longer . Plus, following these tips will protect your hair even as it begins to whiten — whether you choose to cover it up or embrace it, your hair will stay healthy, supple, and strong.