Can You Slow the Greying of Hair? We Investigate
Find out what the pros had to say.
How Does the Hair Turn Grey?
A protein called melanin is responsible for the color of our hair, and the cells in the hair follicles that make melanin are called melanocytes. “Melanocytes are made by stem cells in the root of the hair,” says Dr. Morgan Rabach, board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and co-founder of LM Medical NYC, “and over time the stem cells die out and stop making melanocytes, leaving us with no cells to color the hair.”
Does Genetics Determine the Age You’ll Go Grey?
The age at which we start to go grey varies and depends on many factors. Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, and dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology, believes there is likely a genetic tendency at play in most cases of greying hair, “but, like many genetic tendencies, there are environmental factors that influence how these changes show up in each of us.” Dr. Rabach concurs, adding that “grey hair is a combination of genetics and lifestyle.”
Premature greying is generally considered less than 20 years old and it is thought to be an inherited predisposition. However, premature greying can also be attributed to certain illnesses and deficiencies. Dr. Robinson notes the importance of annual physicals and doctor visits when it comes to premature greying, as it “could be an early sign of metabolic abnormalities in a select population.”
Don’t Believe the Hype
Search results for “grey hair” yield a slew of information centered around the notion that going grey is a result of an accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the follicle, and that it could be eradicated by a topical pseudocatalase cream. This claim seems to have originated from a segment of research on vitiligo, which then appeared to have been manipulated for headlines. Dr. Robinson weighed in with her thoughts on the claim, saying, “There are no double-blinded, controlled clinical studies to support the use of topical pseudocatalase-based creams for loss of pigmentation in hair.”
Similarly, some products have appeared on the market claiming to re-pigment the hair, but the consensus among experts is that the claims are unfounded. “I haven’t seen any convincing evidence for products that claim to reverse or prevent greying of the hair,” says Holden.
The Roll Stress Plays
We know all too well the havoc that stress wreaks on our overall health, but the type of stress we’re referring to here is oxidative stress—the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which leads to cell and tissue damage. “In oxidative stress, free radicals damage our cells and tissues when our body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to combat them, and in our hair, this oxidative stress can damage the cells that produce melanin,” says Kate Holden, consultant trichologist.
The pros agree that oxidative stress plays a key role in the loss of hair pigmentation. “From recent research we know that oxidative stress, the same type of stress that our skin faces in response to UV rays and pollution, can be an important factor in the loss of hair pigmentation,” says Dr. Robinson. While oxidative stress occurs naturally in our bodies, environmental factors can increase its effects, such as alcohol, smoking, sugar and processed foods, cortisol levels, etc.
In addition, a recent study conducted by a group of Harvard researchers looked at the impact of stress (like, say, the kind you feel during a worldwide pandemic) on pigment-producing cells and found that the hyper-activation of the sympathetic nerves caused the depletion of melanocyte stem cells. Trichologist Leata A. Williams explains, “When we are under stress, our bodies signal the fight-or-flight response, and it is the nerves that send the response to our hair follicles, causing the hair to grey.”
Just think of how many world leaders have gone grey while in office—that’s the sympathetic nervous system depleting their hair follicles of melanocytes. And although most of us will never feel the stress of running a country, we’re still susceptible to the same greying effect from our everyday lives.
Unfortunately for us, the pros agree that there is no real evidence to suggest that we can turn back the clock and re-pigment or slow the greying of hair in any tangible way. What we can do, however, is engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors that promote our overall health, and increase our intake of antioxidants. “Increasing antioxidant intake through foods in our diet (leafy veggies, fruit) has not directly been shown to impact greying hair, but it can help to decrease overall oxidative stress levels in the body,” says Dr. Robinson, which is something she discusses with her patients.
Dr. Rabach agrees and adds that she believes that “a stress-free and healthy lifestyle makes your whole body healthier, and this would be reflected in the youthfulness of your hair.” While we may not be able to reverse or halt grey hairs from popping up, what is encouraging is Dr. Rabach’s belief that through good hair health, nutritious diet, and stress management, we might be able to delay their initial appearance. “Increasing your antioxidant intake, whether it be from your diet, a multivitamin, or even a product formulated for hair health, will be beneficial in reducing oxidative stress and may help delay the initial onset of grey hair, ” says Dr. Rabach, who also encourages the use of hair products with antioxidants.
According to Dr. Robinson, there are some reports that Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) therapy— an in-office procedure that involves scalp injection of a processed form of one’s own blood—can promote hair re-pigmentation or slow greying because of its ability to deliver growth factors to the the hair follicle. While it sounds promising, more data needs to be gathered to determine its efficacy as a hair treatment.
Bottom line: Don’t waste your money on products that claim to turn back the clock on grey hair, and focus instead on increasing your antioxidant intake and mitigating the effects of oxidative stress. Here are a couple products to get you started.
Dr. Rabach promotes the use of antioxidant-rich hair products to help protect against the effects of oxidative stress. Look for one that is formulated with powerful superfruits like goji, acai, and pomegranate, and includes biotin for the added hair-nurturing benefits.
This ingestible powder is chock-full of antioxidant-rich superfoods, adaptogens, and a probiotic blend to help your body resist stress, support detoxification, and support immunity. Add a teaspoon to water or a cold beverage of your choice, and reap the benefits of this all-natural, whole-food blend and help fend off the effects of oxidative stress.
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