It can hit you like a Mike Tyson right cross. One day you look in the mirror and … boom. You notice that your hair turning gray. Whether it’s one hair follicle that’s turned gray, or a handful, it can be a hard dose of reality. In fact, for a lot of people, it can be a devastating experience, especially if they’re nowhere close to the age where graying hair would be expected. But why does this happen – and, more importantly, what can you do about it once it does?

Why Hair Turns Gray

There’s no single reason why a person’s hair color changes. Genetics can play a role, as can ethnicity and gender. One expert says that caucasians’ hair tends to turn gray later than African Americans, and Asians fall in between. He also says that men’s hair will typically go gray earlier than women. If your parents’ hair turned gray at an early age, there’s a good chance the same will happen to you. Other factors that determine when hair color will change include smoking as well as heart and/or thyroid problems. The melanocytes, or cells located at the base of a hair follicle, can become damaged due to age, illness, or exposure to certain environmental toxins. This can also lead to grayness.1

The Main Culprit?

Researchers conducting a study published in the March 2016 issue of in Nature Communications believe they have pinpointed a specific gene that is responsible for hair color changing from its original pigment to gray. The researchers stated that there is a chance that identifying the gene could one day result in a pill being available to keep grayness from happening.

The study involved analysis of the DNA of approximately 6,000 people from several Latin American countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. They looked for genes that determine several hair attributes, including texture, color, density, and whether hair is curly or straight. Researchers also studied African, Native American, and European people in order to gather a more diverse variation of gene samples.

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All About Those Genes

The gene in question, IRF4, has long been known to play a role in hair color. For example, it is largely responsible for the light hair pigment of many people of European descent. However, according to the researchers, this is the first time that IRF4 has been linked to causing grayness.

The main function of IRF4 is to produce and regulate a pigment known as melanin, which is not only responsible for hair color, but also skin and eye color. One of the main contributing factors to grayness is a lack of melanin. Genetics largely determines the amount of melanin the body produces, and when it produces the pigment.

According to the researchers, graying of hair happens when something occurs that causes the IRF4 gene to produce less melanin. What that “something” is, though, remains unclear.

The researchers also found that 18 other genes have some sort of influence on how hair looks and feels. One gene, for example, PRSS53, is believed to be responsible for the curliness of hair through the production of an enzyme that causes a hair follicle to become a particular shape.2

A Potential Treatment Option

European researchers claim that they have uncovered not only the main reason for gray hair, but also a treatment to restore hair to its original pigment. They conducted a study that was published in the biology publication FASEB Journal in 2013.

The study involved an analysis of more than 2,400 people suffering from a skin pigmentation problem known as vitiligo. The scientists claim their findings could offer a way to treat this condition, as well as gray hair.

According to the researchers, one of the contributing factors to grayness is a buildup of hydrogen peroxide in hair follicles. The more hydrogen peroxide that accumulates, the more oxidative stress occurs. This, in turn, may lead to grayness.

Other Conditions that May Cause Gray Hair

Younger people tend to have an ample supply of catalase, an enzyme that plays an important role in breaking down hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. As people get older, however, they tend to not only have lower catalase levels but also levels of other enzymes (MSRA and MSRB) that work to repair the damage done by hydrogen peroxide. This, the researchers say, leads to graying hair follicles.

There are two main types of vitiligo – nonsegmental vitiligo (NSV) and strictly segmental vitiligo (SSV). The researchers found that oxidative stress causes both versions of the condition. By applying a topical treatment known as PC-KUS, the researchers said they were able to successfully treat not only skin discolorations, but also eyelash discoloration caused by vitiligo. The substance reportedly works by performing the function of MSRA and MSRB – to repair the damage done by an overabundance of hydrogen peroxide.3

Unfortunately, a lot more research needs to be conducted before we know for sure whether PC-KUS could actually wind up being an effective treatment for people who want to get rid of their gray hair and restore their natural pigment. We’re a long way from the time that you’ll be able to buy a tube of PC-KUS at your local pharmacy. We don’t even know if that day will ever come.

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Dealing With Gray Hair

So until that day does arrive, you basically have two options when it comes to gray hair. You can try to reverse the effects of your lack of melanin by using hair coloring products, or you can accept your hair turning gray – in fact, you can embrace it. Lucky for you, silver hair is even trending!

What Will Be … Will Be

Understand that a multitude of factors affect when, or even if, you’ll have gray hair. When the melanocytes at the base of hair follicles become damaged, this can cause grayness – a loss of melanin means a loss of color pigment. Sometimes, no matter what you do, your hair will probably go gray eventually, ready or not. When it does, it’s best to embrace it as a sign of growing older…beautifully.

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Sources

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/well/live/why-does-hair-turn-gray-at-a-young-age.html

2 https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10815

3 http://www.fasebj.org/content/early/2013/04/29/fj.12-226779