Science explains why your hair turns grey – it’s not the reason you think

The fact that your hair turns grey because of stress is nothing more than an old wives’ tale.

It’s true that stress isn’t good for you, but it’s not going to turn you into a silver fox just yet.

In fact, the answer comes from the pigments in the cells in your hair. This is what determines the colour and, eventually, the fade to grey.

Most of us start to notice our first grey hairs by the time we hit our thirties. A general rule to go by is that by the age of 50, half of the population will have lost the colour in 50% of their hair.

Generally speaking, men will go more grey than women and it affects Asians and African heads less than Caucasian ones.

But why does it happen? Firstly, we need to understand how hair gets its colour.

What creates hair colour?

Your hair is made up of cells called melanocytes which produce pigments as they grow into the hair fibre.

There are two different types of melanins: eumelanins and pheomelanins. The former produces black and brown pigments while the latter produces red and yellow pigments.

The exact ratio of these pigments determines whether a person has black, brown, blonde or red hair.

So why does it turn grey?

As we age, the ability of the melanocytes to produce more pigment eventually fades. That’s because our hair growth is cyclical.

The growing phase lasts between three and five years, after which your follicles turn off for about three months to rest and get ready to grow more hairs. This goes round and round and, after time, our bodies aren’t as adept at producing new hairs.

"Scientists have long known that in order to prevent hair from going grey they would need to either prolong the life of the melanocytes in the hair bulb – by protecting them from injury – or expand the melanocyte stem cell reservoir in the upper or top region of the hair follicle so they continue to replace lost pigment cells," explained Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, Epworth Hospital, at the University of Melbourne.

Is there a "cure"?

Like baldness, scientists are continuing to try and find ways to prevent greying hair.

A team of scientists in France are working to try and stop the melanocytes from being damaged at the end of each hair cycle.

They are trying to use a special enzyme to protect the cells from damage. If successful, it could lead the way for new products that keep your locks full of colour for years to come.

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