April 11, 2021/Skin Care & Beauty

Why Hair Turns Gray

It’s a natural process, but stress and smoking don’t help

checking out scalp and gray hair

Unless you dye, your hair eventually loses its color, usually beginning in your 30s or 40s. Though going gray is natural, many people dread it because of society’s notions about aging. Here’s what researchers know about how and why graying hair happens.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

What gives hair its natural color?

Melanin, the brown/black or yellow/red pigment that tints skin and eyes, also dictates your hair’s hue. Like paint-mixing, “the amount and combination of melanin determines hair color,” says dermatologist Wilma Bergfeld, MD.

Why does hair have color?

Scientists aren’t sure. The trait may have evolved partly to help pre-humans stand out from each other and attract mates, and to help regulate body temperature by absorbing or reflecting sunlight.

Why does hair turn gray?

Gray hair is really hair with reduced melanin, while white hair completely lacks it. That’s partly because of a gradual decline in the number of stem cells that mature to become melanin-producing cells. Scientists aren’t sure why. The cells may wear out, become damaged, or lose the support systems meant to keep them working. Genes are also a factor, since they help control melanin production.

Can anything prevent hair from graying?

For now, no.

Advertisement

Scientists experimenting with mice recently showed that three specific genes can help maintain stable numbers of melanin-producing cells. By manipulating the genes, the researchers prevented or reduced gray hair in the mice. But no product based on the research is currently available.

Can stress or fear cause hair to suddenly lose color?

Probably not.

Historical accounts claim jailed British statesman Sir Thomas More and French queen Marie Antoinette went white overnight while awaiting execution. But dermatologists say the likely explanation is either that their vegetable- or mineral- based hair dye washed away, or that they had alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can be triggered by stress and causes pigmented hair to rapidly fall out but doesn’t affect white hairs, creating the illusion of a sudden color change.

Can stress cause gradual, long-term hair graying?

Maybe. Researchers examining gray hair have found evidence of “free radicals” — damaging chemicals caused by stress, smoking, inflammation or radiation exposure, among other things — and propose that they’re responsible for destroying pigment-producing melanocyte stem cells. But there’s no conclusive proof.

Advertisement

Can smoking cause premature graying?

There’s definitely a link. A 2013 study found that smokers on average went gray three years earlier than non-smokers. Scientists suspect that smoking causes chemical changes that damage the body’s melanin-producing cells.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Adult male with acne on face and chest
April 11, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Adult Acne: What Causes It and What To Do About It

As you age, hormones can continue to play a big role in breakouts

person getting forehead injections in a wrinkle
March 18, 2024/Aging Well
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Botox?

With repeat injections over time, you may be able to slow the development of new wrinkles

Younger person getting a botox injection in forehead from healthcare professional
March 12, 2024/Aging Well
Does Preventative Botox Really Work?

The cosmetic injection may help train your muscles out of frowning, but there’s no hard data to say for sure

Edler man laughs with friends and family at dining table.
July 4, 2023/Senior Health
Successful Aging: Tips for Keeping Your Body and Mind Sharp

Living longer is more than just growing older — it’s also about living life to its fullest

An older person holds both hands out in front of them and squeezes each one as if to relieve tension.
July 18, 2022/Wellness
Why You Should Care About Free Radicals

When free radicals don’t have antioxidants to keep them in check, they go rogue

Cartoonish lightning bolts of pain emanate from the knee of a distressed elderly person
How Does Aging Affect Your Bones?

A look at bone buildup and loss throughout your life

An illustration of a person looking at wall calendar
December 26, 2021/Women's Health
Is My Period Normal? How Menstrual Cycles Change With Age

Some changes in your period can be worrisome, and some not

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad