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White Hair: Causes And Treatments

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 12/26/2020

You’re getting older. Those stray greys you saw in the mirror just a few short months ago feel like they’ve taken over a good chunk of your head, and right now the only thing you’re wondering is: how the hell did this happen, and what can I do to get rid of them?

First, don’t be too hard on yourself. This is life, and as we always say: you’re not getting older; you’re getting better.

And second, getting to the root of white hairs isn’t very complicated. Put simply, the hair turns white when it loses all its color. In more detail, white hair occurs when the hair follicle is completely deprived of melanosomes and color. Melanosomes are responsible for producing and storing melanin — the pigment behind the hair’s coloring

Melanosomes in turn are produced by melanocytes which die as we get older. This results in less and less melanin production, which is why we get grey and eventually white hairs. 

However, white hairs can sprout even at the pinnacle of youth for a number of reasons. We’re going to explore what those reasons are and how you can “treat” them.

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Causes of White Hair

Upon discovering your first premature white hair, there’s a guaranteed five-minute window spent alternating between two actions: screaming at the mirror and contemplating if a quick pluck will cause 10 more strands to spring out in punishment (it won’t).

In between that chaos, little mind is paid to the origins of the white hair and whether or not it’s a product of actions, inactions or entirely out of any control. White hairs can appear for a number of reasons, some of which are:

Genetics

You know how height, skin-type and, surprisingly, adorable facial dimples are determined by genes? Well, your hair losing its pigmentation early also splashes within the gene pool. 

Now, to be clear, premature greying starts around 20 years in Caucasians and 30 in African Americans. Where that happens, there’s a high chance your dad, mom or grandparents went through their five minutes in front of a mirror decades earlier, and are now passing on the white-haired baton.

An inherited gene known as Interferon Regulatory Factor 4 or IRF4 is usually responsible for hair greying and subsequently hair whitening. 

IRF4 usually regulates the production and storage of melanin, which you’ll remember, gives color to your hair, eyes and skin. 

Since fighting genes is near impossible, there’s hardly any way to prevent or reverse genetically sourced hair whitening. Your best bet is to employ hair dye or to simply rock out with your white locks.

Stress

Even though the end of a stressful day can leave you feeling 30 years older, it’s not certain that a crown of white hairs will sprout on your head in support of that.

In a study carried out on mice, scientists were able to show that stress can cause hair to grey by triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These triggers caused mice blood pressures to rise, and hearts to beat faster. This sped up the depletion of melanocyte stem cells necessary for hair color, and led to greying. 

However, despite establishing a link, finding a precise cause of hair graying proved difficult. It wasn’t an immune attack, or the stress hormone - corticosterone. The neurotransmitter noradrenaline showed some promise, but even mice without adrenal glands displayed stress-related graying when triggered.

Ultimately, the study resolved on the key role the sympathetic nervous system plays in stress-induced graying. More research is however required to understand the interactions between the nervous system and cells in different tissues and organs.

With more research needed, there is inconclusive proof linking stress with the hair greying or whitening. Unless of course “stress” refers to “oxidative stress.” 

Oxidative stress refers to the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidant defenses in the body. It’s a common link in aging-related diseases, and is known to cause the greying of hair. To understand how, let’s get a little technical.

Remember how melanocytes produce melanin? Well, during the production process, chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and other free radicals are also produced. This can place the melanocytes under oxidative stress.

Also culpable in oxidative stress, external damage — like UV-exposure. While hair pigments function to protect hair proteins from light damage, the process can lead to pigments becoming bleached.  

Oxidative stress also cause hydrogen peroxide to build up in the hair and bleach it from within, causing it to go grey and then white. 

Smoking

If you compared the pros and cons of smoking, you’d probably be done writing the good on half a sheet of paper, but would require multiple spiral-bound folders to cover the bad. 

Included in the bad is how smoking can lead to the hastened graying and whitening of the hair.

Nicotine which is consumed while smoking may damage melanocytes through oxidative stress

By damaging these melanocytes, the body’s production of melanin is affected, which may  ultimately lead to hair discoloration..

A study carried out on a mixed group of 207 people with premature and normal hair greying, determined smokers were 2.5 times more likely to gray prematurely. A little thing to remember, the next time you feel the urge to smoke.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Sometimes discovering whites in your hair isn’t about genes or how many packs of cigarettes you go through in a day. Sometimes, it’s about what goes into your mouth — or, more accurately, what doesn’t.

Nutrients like iron, copper, and calcium are very essential to hair coloring. 

Take copper, for instance. It plays a major role in providing hair with antioxidants to protect against free radicals brought on by UV-exposure and other things responsible for aging your hair. 

Copper can also reduce the damage these radicals cause.

It is also necessary for melanin production, as are calcium and iron. 

A study performed on 100 Indian students also noted the effects of a Vitamin B12 deficiency in hair graying. Without these nutrients present, the hair is insufficiently nourished for colour production and can whiten.

To avoid this, a diet rich in the necessary nutrients for hair growth and colouration is advised.

Diseases

In some instances, the appearance of white hair might mean something more serious than the loss of youth. It could indicate the presence of a disease.     

Illnesses like vitiligo, a skin condition where melanocytes are destroyed, and alopecia areata , an auto-immune disease where the body attacks hair follicles, causing them to shrink, fall out and slow down hair production, are perfect examples. 

Re-grown hairs usually appear white. Poliosis is also characterised by a white patch of hair on hairy parts of the body.

While vitiligo and poliosis are lifelong conditions, alopecia can be treated using corticosteroids and immunotherapy . 

Treating White Hair

If you have one or more white hairs, you probably skipped right through ‘causes’ and made a beeline here to find just how to treat the darned things! We get it — however, sometimes the causes of white hair can determine whether or not it is treatable, and the appropriate measures to be taken. That said, here are treatment options for those pesky white hairs:

  • Coloring: here’s the thing, once white hair is courtesy your genes, it’s most likely going to remain permanent. That’s where hair dye comes in. If you think your brown, black or blonde locs left the game a little too early, you can restore your colour or even try something daring (blue, anyone?) instead.

  • Thyroid treatment: with thyroid disorders like alopecia areata being a known cause of white hair, thyroid hormone treatment can prove to be helpful in reversing instances of white hair. But don’t rush off to the doctors, its effects are still being studied, although it shows some promise.

  • Stock up on vitamin B12: very limited studies have proven this, so don’t get too excited, but — there is a chance that increasing low vitamin B12 levels can help in returning your hair to its natural hue. Incorporating B12 rich foods like clams, liver and trout could help in restoring hair color.

  • Consume more essential minerals: with copper, calcium and iron deficiencies linked to white hair, supplementing your diet with meals rich in these nutrients might prove to reverse the appearance of white hair. Further studies are however needed to confirm the link between trace nutrients and white hair reversal.

In Conclusion

At first notice, white hairs might seem like a premature and terrifying introduction into the elderly club. But in reality, it’s your body giving you pointers on what’s happening internally. White hairs can be permanent, reversible or manageable, depending on the cause, but should you feel too self-conscious about them, remember —- a dye job is a day’s job away! 

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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