While greying hair is a completely natural sign of aging, it’s not uncommon to sometimes see the occasional white or grey hair or eyebrow popping up when you’re younger, too.
If you’re wondering what causes hair to turn grey and if there’s anything you can do to prevent it, read on. We explore the possible causes for greying of hair, as well as some insight on how to prevent grey hairs.
Why does hair go grey?
Going grey is all down to the hair follicles on your scalp that are responsible for growing new hairs. Hair is made up of a shaft (the coloured part we see growing from our head) and a root (the part attached to our scalp).1
All of our hair roots are surrounded by a tube of tissue under the skin called the hair follicle. And these follicles contain pigment cells that make melanin. Melanin is what gives us our hair colour.
As we age, the pigment cells that are in our hair follicles start to die. Over time, this means there are less-and-less hair follicles and less-and-less pigment cells. And when this happens, our hair no longer contains the volume of melanin it once used to and it starts to go grey.
Not everybody’s hair looks grey, sometimes it can look more silvery, or even, white. Eventually, people are left with no melanin-producing pigment cells and no colour. Once a hair follicle produces hair, the colour of that hair is determined from the outset – there’s no changing the colour naturally. The only way you can change it is by dying your hair. (For more on home dyeing, read this article, ‘How to dye your own hair.’)
It’s possible for greying of hair to happen at any age, with some reports of it happening after 35.2 Some people go grey younger than others. When we go grey is hereditary and most people start to experience grey hairs around the time their parents and grandparents did.
Grey hair is caused when the pigment cells in our hair follicles produce less melanin, which is responsible for us giving us our natural hair colour.
Embrace your grey hair
Is grey hair really a bad thing? Some people actually find they carry off and suit the silver fox look extremely well. Take Philip Schofield, George Clooney, Dame Judi Dench, Richard Gere, Gary Lineker, Helen Mirren, for instance, they’re among many high-profile figures that have gone grey gracefully.
Having grey hair has become a style trend over the years too, with the likes of Lady Gaga and Kelly Osbourne, Ariana Grande, Cara Delevingne and Kim Kardashian being among the ladies to have fashionably transformed their natural hair colour to more of a white, silver or grey shade.
While people may immediately associate grey hair with getting older, greying of hair has long been viewed as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. Throughout the 18th century, powdering elaborate wigs and your hair off-white was the done thing among the European elite.
Grey hair happens to all of us at some point. How we choose to embrace it is entirely down to us. Some people are perfectly happy to leave their lighter locks as they are, while others may choose to cover over the grey with dye. There’s no right or wrong way to deal with your hair going grey.
Beyond ageing, there are a few other things that can make your hair turn grey prematurely. Possible causes of grey hair include:
Premature hair greying
Like many other health issues, sometimes premature greying is simply down to your genetics. Your parents’ own experiences of going grey are good indicators of when you might start to see some grey hairs appearing. Additionally, ethnicity can be a factor - Caucasians tend to go grey earlier than Asians or African Americans.
What we eat can directly impact many things around our body, our hair included. Having not enough of one type of food could mean you’re deficient in a certain nutrient (such as Vitamin B12 or Omega-3) or aren’t getting enough protein.
Does stress cause grey hair?
Researchers believe stress could have something to do with cortisol, a hormone that’s usually produced when your body is put under pressure. Others think it may be directly related to the central nervous system and how it’s able to deplete the pigmentation cells in your hair follicles when you’re stressed.
But if you’re middle-aged and your hair is falling out and regenerating more quickly because of stress, it’s possible that the hair that grows in its place will be grey instead of its original colour.
While colouring your hair can be a natural response to covering up a few greys, the ingredients present in most products can actually have a big impact on your hair and its colour.
Colourants typically contain things, such as ammonia or bleach. These ingredients strip your hair of its melanin and can make it look duller and greyer.
An underlying health issue
If you notice your hair turning grey and cannot explain it away by any of the things above (or you have other potential symptoms), make an appointment with your GP.
Ethnicity and genetics
As we all know, not everybody goes grey at exactly the same time. Some people go grey younger or older than others, and some people’s hair turns grey bit-by-bit or much faster. Greying of hair differs from person-to-person.
On average, Caucasians start to grey in their mid-30s. Asians start in their late 30s. And African Americans usually don’t see colour changes until their mid-40s. What’s more, grey hair is reportedly 90% controlled by genetics.3
This has been proven by research carried out by University College London. The research found it’s specifically down to a particular gene, known as IRF4.4
The study analysed more than 6,000 people with varied ancestry across Latin America to identify new genes associated with hair colour, greying, density and shape, i.e. straight or curly. The gene identified for grey hair - IRF4 – had always been known to play a role in hair colour, but it was specifically linked to causing grey hair in the UCL research. This particular gene is involved in regulating production and storage of melanin, the pigment that determines hair, skin and eye colour.
The health effects of smoking have been widely reported, but the connection between smoking and grey hair may not be something that’s widely known about.
Smoking has consistently been linked to premature greying. According to a study published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal, which studied 200 people, smokers were 2.5 times more likely to experience premature greying (before age 30) than non-smokers. Another study, in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, linked smoking to premature greying in young men. It’s believed that free radicals, which are produced by smoking, may damage the cells that produce melanin.5
Several factors are believed to contribute to greying hair, from being deficient in certain hair-boosting vitamins and minerals and smoking, to chemicals in certain hair dyes, ethnicity and genetics.
Why does hair turn grey at the temples first?
The subject of greying temples is one that’s attracted widespread debate. Some people claim it’s down to genetics and the way the skin is formed in the embryo.6 The top of the scalp has one genetic signature and the sides and back have another.7
As skin is being formed in the womb, a sheet from the lower neck grows upwards to form the skin around our temples and back of the head. The skin at the front and towards the crown develops from a separate plane of skin, stretching upwards over our faces, with the two connecting at the vertex in the centre of the scalp. The way these separate areas are formed has been linked to baldness, and is therefore believed to also potentially contribute to greying hair.
Another possible reason is follicle cycling, which is the process in which hair greys. Hair tends to fall out less at the temples, so if it’s already turned or turning grey, it will remain greyer for longer. What’s more, the hair on the temples is more visible, which can potentially mean people think hair goes grey there first because it’s the section of the hair that’s always in full view.
Hair may appear to go grey first at the temples as it’s the area of hair that’s always on show. Meanwhile, scientific explanations suggest the way the skin on the head’s formed during pregnancy may play a part.
How to prevent grey hair
It’s inevitable that your hair will start to go grey as you get older. If you’re worried about premature greying though, there are a few things you can do to help prevent it8:
- Eat a well-rounded diet – that’s packed with protein and essential vitamins, including Vitamin D-3, and Vitamin B-12.
- Avoid chemical hair dyes - that can potentially reduce your melanin levels and switch to natural dyes, such as henna, if you do want to continue colouring your hair.
- Keep stress to a minimum - by changing your lifestyle and doing calming activities like yoga or meditation.
- Stop smoking - a study from 2013 reported in the Italian Dermatology Online Journal showed smokers are 2.5 times more likely to start going grey before age 30 as non-smokers.
- Eat more antioxidants - diet can play a part in preventing grey hair. A diet that’s rich in antioxidants can reduce oxidative stress. Antioxidant food includes: green tea, olive oil, fresh fruit and veg.
- Identify any deficiencies – grey hair can sometimes be caused by a vitamin deficiency. For example, seafood, eggs, and meats are good sources of Vitamin B-12, and milk, salmon and cheese are excellent sources of Vitamin D.
- Eating food that contains Omega-3 fatty acids - such as fish and seeds. It’s believed that Omega 3 can help to enable the pigment-producing melanocytes within the follicles to stay stronger and active for longer.9
- Get plenty of minerals – certain minerals play a vital role in hair health. They are zinc, iron, magnesium, selenium and copper.
- Try some natural remedies – they include drinking eight ounces of carrot juice a day, massaging ghee into your hair and scalp twice a week, eating a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses every other day and a tablespoon of fresh grated ginger mixed with one tablespoon of honey every day.10
Eating a well-rounded diet, full of vitamins and minerals, minimising stress, not smoking and avoiding chemical dyes, are among the preventative measures believed to help prevent grey hair.
Can you stop grey hairs from growing?
Once your hair has gone grey, it’s gone grey, and you can’t stop more of it from coming through grey. You may be able to preserve the rest of your colour by following preventative measures, like the ones listed above.11
Furthermore, eating a healthy and balanced diet is also important, with these vitamins and minerals - calcium, copper, iron, protein, Vitamin B-5, Vitamin B-6, Vitamin B-9, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D and zinc – all potentially playing a role in making sure your hair follicles produce melanin so you can keep your natural colour for longer.
Grey hair happens to all us at some point in our life. Ultimately, the timing of it is linked to our ethnicity and genetics, but it’s believed there are certain things that can be done to possibly help slow down the process.
For more insight on vitamins and hair health read, ‘Which vitamins are good for hair?’
Last updated: 9 April 2021