The Science of Gray Hair

How did you feel when you first noticed you were “going gray?” If gray hairs haven’t snuck in yet, how do you feel about one day going gray?

Gray hair is one of the universal signs of advanced age. More likely than not, at some point in your life, your hair will start to go gray. Some individuals can maintain hair color well into their older age, but most do not. 

Opinions about gray hair vary, but understanding why it happens can help change the narrative around gray hair. After all, it’s a natural aging process. 

Public opinion

A study published in Ageing & Society explored older women’s perceptions of gray, white, and colored hair to gather societal attitudes towards gray hair. 

The researchers interviewed women aged 71-94 years old about their thoughts on makeup, nail care, clothing, sun tanning, and hair-care practices. 

The study revealed that women found gray hair to be less attractive than snowy white hair. Many women appreciate white hair, but when asked about their own gray hair, they had extremely negative perceptions of it. 

The women also had very strict opinions on how older women should style their hair. They tore apart long, flowing gray hairstyles and suggested that a shorter cut was more flattering for gray-haired woman. 

While opinions may vary on how to feel about gray hair, the science of graying is solid. 

Where does hair color come from?

First, it’s important to understand how hair produces color. 

Melanin and your genetic code are the main factors in determining what hair color you will have. There are two different types of melanin that are present in hair follicles. 

When eumelanin is present, it results in black and brown hair. Lots of eumelanin leads to a black head of hair; moderate amounts of eumelanin lead to brown hair; and very little eumelanin leads to blond hair. 

When eumelanin is barely present, pheomelanin dominates, which results in red hair.

Eumelanin and pheomelanin are found in hair follicles in cells called melanocytes, which produce melanin. As we age, melanocytes decrease in number and less melanin is produced. Fewer melanocytes mean a lack of pigment in the hair, resulting in a silvery-gray color. Now the hair itself is not actually white; it is an optical illusion that results when light is refracted off the hair, creating a silver-like look.

Hair research suggests that after age 30, there is a 10 to 20 percent decrease in the amount of melanin produced for each following decade. By age 50, half of men and women will have at least 50 percent gray hair. 

Mind over matter

Changing the narrative around gray hair is important. Our ‘Mind Over Matter’ blog explains the importance of self-perceptions of aging. 

Holding negative views about aging has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, a lowered ability to bounce back from disease, lower morality rates, and a decreased ability to fight off cancer. 

Negative perceptions of aging have also been linked to societal stereotypes of older adults, creating a negative connotation of what it means to be older in the public’s eyes. 

Placing aging in a positive light allows an individual to view age-related changes in an upbeat manner, which then promotes a more graceful aging trajectory.  

Unfortunately, going gray is inevitable – but the way you think about graying is within your control. Embrace the change and your beautiful gray locks!

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Grace Weintrob is a junior majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in Stage, Sports, and Film Production at CSU. She is currently working as the digital media intern for the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging.

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