You wake up one morning, hop out of bed, go to the bathroom to brush your teeth and then you notice it—a gray hair. Maybe it’s sprouted above your sideburns or it’s creeping out your hairline. Regardless of how noticeable it actually is, going gray and worse, going gray early, is enough to send anyone to go into a tailspin of self-doubt and panic: Does this mean my body is starting to age? Am I sick? Am I going gray because I am super stressed? Am I going bald? Can I do anything to stop this?
There are many myths and misconceptions about going gray early. Here’s a guide to what it actually means when you start getting gray hairs in your 20s and 30s.
There may be one simple reason why you’re going gray early: genetics. Hair color derives from melanin, a pigment that can be found in follicles and skin. As your hair follicles gradually lose melanin, it gets grayer until it eventually goes completely white. Getting gray hairs is a natural middle step to losing pigmentation in your follicles. Check to see when when your father or grandfather started going gray, because chances are that you will notice gray hairs around the same time they did. This information can be reassuring and ease your anxiety.
Though going gray is strongly associated with elderly people, it doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of your body is getting old or wearing down. A study found that going bald or getting gray hair doesn’t reflect men or women’s mortality at all. In most cases, it’s merely an aesthetic aspect to one’s body. On top of that, it could be determined by your ethnicity or hair color.
Knowing a little bit about when your dad and grandfather started going gray can also help you determine whether or not you should be concerned for your health. If gray hairs are highly unusual in your family, something else may be up.
Dr. Michael Eidelman, Medical Director of Chelsea Skin & Laser and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai said in a 2015 Huffington Post article that in rare circumstances, early gray hairs could potentially indicate that you’re anemic, have a Vitamin B12 deficiency or have a problem with your thyroid glands.
If you’re a smoker, you may also have an increased chance of getting gray hairs. One study found that smokers are 2.5 times more likely to experience premature graying. Why? Chemicals found in cigarettes wreak havoc on follicles and could damage hair cells to the point that they start to lose color.
The thought of going gray due to stress probably seems pretty realistic, given the fact that according to a 2017 gallup poll, nearly 80% of Americans say they're stressed. There are plenty of physical manifestations of stress and anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can lead to headaches, muscle tension, chest pain and stomach problems.
However, there’s no scientifically verified correlation between stress and going gray. Rather, if someone is already genetically predisposed to going gray early, stress can simply accelerate that process. You won’t start losing hair pigmentation because of debt, family tragedy or getting abruptly fired, if you weren’t supposed to go gray in the first place.
It’s understandable to assume that going gray can be an early indicator that you’re going to start losing your hair. But this is a big misconception. Despite both stemming from genetics, hair loss and going gray are notably different. In most cases, men experience hair loss because the androgen DHT is gradually shrinking their hair follicles. Our guide to DHT and hair loss delves deep into the issue, if you're looking to learn more.
On the other hand, men start losing their hair color because of reduced levels of melanin. Yes, both conditions are genetically predetermined, and if you’re living an unhealthy lifestyle or sick, there could be an overlap. But it’s possible to have a full head of salt and pepper hair. If you are also experiencing hair loss, however, there are scientifically proven products that can help block DHT.
There’s no cure to going gray. Unless you’re losing hair pigmentation because of smoking or a specific health problem, you will have to come to terms with this being your new reality. You could eat more vitamins and buy special shampoos but the cake has been baked. Though plenty of stars (George Clooney, Anderson Cooper, Alec Baldwin, to name a few) have embraced the “silverfox” look, it’s perfectly normal to want to go back to color. The one proven solution is dying your hair on a regular basis. Talk to your hair stylist or barber about shampoos or conditioners they'd recommend. Here are a few products that could potentially help:
If you’re looking for more health and lifestyle tips, check out our blog.