When Hair Becomes A Gray Area

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I had a seminal birthday a few months ago, but as the clock struck 12 midnight on  50th anniversary of my birth, my body didn’t start changing as if on cue.    The on-going process of aging started 50 plus years ago;  at the very moment of conception.

I have noticed a few more gray hairs and in the damndest places, I might add.   I’ve also noticed far less hair as well.   All indicators that I’m no longer spry and agile. 

Now, in the past when I’ve noticed physical benchmarks indicating the passage of  time, I have acknowledged age gracefully and there have been times, whenthis was done with unpardonable vehemence as I kicked and screamed, but that was yesterday.  I’v, decided that I will no longer allow myself to be mortified by what time has wrought on mybody or my  hair.  Aging happens naturally to every living being.    

So, why not embrace it?  I mean, what can I or you or anyone, really do about aging?  

The steady scalpel of  a seasoned plastic surgeon can remove the appearance of aging from my body, but it can’t remove the chronological age.  Ask Joan Rivers.  Underneath that 55 year old looking face (well, face of a reptile these days) lies a 75 year old body. So, a surgeon can only do so much.  He or she can’t remove the scars and the experiences that even at their worst, give life its  piquancy.  And all things considered, why would anyone want these removed?

About the only thing we can do besides embracing the process of aging and try to wrap our ever increasingly graying noggins around the concept.

And that’s the reason for this post.

I want to help all of us to better understand the process as it pertains to some of the more obvious, visual cues, such as the graying of our hair.

Michelle Burford recently penned a piece in AOL about gray hair  and all the truths and myths surrounding the phenomonon.  I’ll redact a few pieces of info from her article and add a few salient points of my own.   This way, you won’t leave this blog without having a well-rounded education on all things gray hair. 

So what causes it, you ask? 

Let’s start at the start, shall we? 

Each hair on our bodies (especially the scalps on our heads), contains two parts: 

  • a shaft (shut your mouth)  – the colored part we see growing out of our heads
  • and a a root – the bottom part, which keeps the hair anchored under the scalp 

The root of every strand of hair is surrounded by a tube of tissue under the skin known as the follicle.  Each one contains only a certain number of pigment cells, which continuously produce melanin.  And that gives the growing shaft (then you can dig it)  of hair its color of brown, blond, red, and anything in between. 

As we get older, the pigment cells in our hair follicles gradually die. When there are fewer pigment cells in a hair follicle, that strand of hair will no longer contain as much melanin and will become a more transparent color – like gray, silver, or white – as it grows. As people continue to get older, fewer pigment cells will be around to produce melanin. Eventually, the hair will look completely gray. 

People can get gray hair at any age. Some people do so prematurely…at a young age – as early as when they are in high school or college – whereas others may be in their 30s or mid to late 40s before they see that first gray hair.  How early we get gray hair is determined by our genes.  Early?  Late?  No getting around that.  Now this means  most of us will start having gray hairs around the same age that our parents or grandparents first did.  And while we’re on the subject, skin tone and facial wrinkles (which are inevitable) are also genetically dispensed. 

For that, I dutifully thank my mother. 

When I first began to notice a few grays, I wasn’t upset but because Vanity, The Name Is Laurie, I tried convincing everyone who gazed upon those silver strands that it was actually platinum and that he or she never really knew his or her colors.

When most normal people begin to see the first signs of gray hair, you’ll feel a pinch of anxiety, then you look for excuses.   We all blame stress first and foremost.   You job or lack thereof, insomnia, your philandering, lying cheating spouse…even those damn kids .

 But here’s the truth about your silver locks: You wouldn’t gray any sooner or any more if you got all the sleep you needed and had angels for kids.

Now, continuing on with Burford’s AOL piece.  

“It’s based on a collection of genes,” says Jerry Shapiro, MD, adjunct professor at New York University’s Lagone Medical Center, adding that scientists don’t know whether the gray gene is passed on maternally or paternally. Most people begin graying in mid-life when the cells that produce pigment in hair become depleted, but the timing of that process is pre-programmed by your DNA. There are certainly other factors that affect gray hair — and many that don’t.

In this article, Burford asks Dr. Shapiro to separate fact from falsehood.

Fact: Ethnicity is a Factor

By age 50, most people can expect 50 percent of their hair to be gray, but when gray first appears seems to be determined, at least in part, by ethnicity. According to a 2005 study published in the “Journal of Investigative Dermatology,” a white person will begin graying in his or her mid-thirties, Asian people will start noticing a little silver in their late thirties — but black people generally ward off the gray strands until their mid-forties.

Myth: White Hair Is Reversible

When it comes to preventing or reversing gray, tales abound about what might do the trick from massaging your scalp with a coconut oil and lemon juice cocktail, to eating iodine-rich foods like bananas and washing hair in butter. According to Dr. Shapiro, such claims are unsubstantiated malarkey. “There is absolutely nothing you can eat or take to make your hair dark again,” he says. Dr. Shapiro suggests that you save yourself the headache of battling nature — unless, of course, you do so with a bottle of hair dye.  But coloring gray hair ain’t so easy.  Experience should tell those of us who know all about Clairol and Grecian Formula For Men that coloring gray is an exercise in and of itself.  Keep reading to understand why these wiry bastards are so difficult to color.

Myth: Gray Signals a Short Lifespan

Your salt-and-pepper mane has nothing to do with longevity. Scientists in Copenhagen studied 20,000 people trying to examine the link between mortality and signs of aging such as gray hair, baldness, and wrinkles. The study’s conclusion: Gray hair doesn’t signify that you’ll have a shorter lifespan than your non-gray counterparts.

Myth: Plucking Speeds Growth

I’ve always thought this old chestnut was a crock.  Everyone has plucked a few gray hairs in their life, but others didn’t grow back two fold because one of plucked.   “Plucking simply doesn’t accelerate the growth of gray hair,” Dr. Shapiro says. Once you uproot the silver hair, the follicle that produced it will bring you another strand exactly like it, since once a follicle goes gray, it will never revert. Then over time, says Dr. Shapiro, the neighboring follicles will join in the party, whether you pluck them or not.

Fact: Hormones Play a Part

Though gray hair isn’t usually a symptom of your body’s overall health, there are rare cases in which gray can indicate a hormone imbalance or a thyroid condition. Talk with your doctor if you notice gray hair cropping and also are feeling unlike yourself.

Fact: Gray Hair is Hard to Dye

Ever noticed that your silver strands seem to stubbornly resist chemical coloring?  I have and short of grabbing a yellow Magic Marker and painting it up from tip to stern, I have tried coloring a la Loreal.    If you’ve noticed the difficulty yourself,  Dr. Shapiro says it’s not your imagination: Each fiber of gray hair is wider in diameter and contains a central core of air that makes it less permeable than non-gray hair. “That’s why gray hair doesn’t take to dye as easily,” he says.

Myth: Sun Increases Gray

Too much exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays is known to be harmful to your skin and eyes — but there’s zero evidence that the sun actually turns your tresses gray, says Shapiro. “Gray hair is produced in the roots,” he says. “The sun can lighten the hair that has already grown out of the roots — but it cannot make your follicles begin producing gray hair.”

Myth: Smoking Worsens Gray

While it’s true that smoking undermines one’s general health and can lead to premature aging, smoking doesn’t hasten the onset of gray. Says Dr. Shapiro: “There is no scientific proof that smoking causes or speeds gray.”

Myth: Stress Causes Gray

“Many people ask me whether President Obama is graying faster because of the pressure he’s under,” Dr. Shapiro says, and as onerous as the job of leader of the country is, Obama’s graying hair is likely the result of age, not his demanding schedule. “Stress has nothing to do with it — the timing of our gray is based on our genetics,” he says. There’s one rare exception, notes Dr. Shapiro: alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes the loss of pigmented hairs and can leave a person gray in as little as two weeks. The condition’s cause is unknown, but scientists think it is stress-related.

OK, here’s where I disagree with the good doctor.  Pesonally, I have noticed that in periods of stress, I get grayer.  Eyesbrows, especially.  I do think that periods of intense and prolonged stress can exacerbate and quicken the graying process.

Am I all alone here or did anyone else notice  that Jo Beth Williams’ hair at  the very end of “Poltergeist” after enduring all that chaos with them spooks and such, suddenly had two shocks of  whitish gray streaks down both sides of her head…streaks that could make Pepe Le Pew jealous????

Jo Beth Gray

Pepe Le Pew

 

 …..

 

 

6 comments

  1. Kids cause grey. I know it. I began getting my first grey hairs in my mid twenties as soon as eldest started kindergarten and I got the phone call from the principal the first day of school.

  2. I’ve never really thought about the greying of hair much. Sure, I look at my salt and pepper beard on vacation but being that I am balding…I’d take any hair (grey or not).

    I’m a bit immuned to the greys due to the fact that my wife’s brothers are all greying (some completely) since their early twenties. By comparison, I’m quite pigmented.

    The one good thing about grey hair though is that some folks can really wear it with dignity. Somewhere in the course of my medical career, people stopped gawking at me and saying “Oh, you’re too YOUNG to be a doctor!”. The salt-and-pepper hair adds a bit to one’s presence and adds some credibility, I suppose.

  3. It really does. Whenever I get on a plane, I look into the cockpit to see who’s going to fly the thing. I always feel safer when I see one of the grey-hairs in the cockpit.

  4. Very interesting & informative

    Hope the jobs are pouring in

    Now back to the Gardening

    Wish I cld claim to wear Grey with Dignity

    Kind regards

    G E

  5. I have had the most beautiful full head of silver hair since I don’t know when. (That’s because, on my 40th birthday, I decided to stop coloring and discovered a georgeous – and free – head of silver.) What’s happening now (17 years later) is that I have sections of blond – having never been blond, I suspect it’s something in the environment. Does ultraviolet turn silver hair yellow? Does water rich in iron cause silver hair to turn yellow? And, no matter what the cause, what can I do to get my silver back? Thanks, Jerri

  6. Just on the stress gray thing: I am sure your hair may get grayer in times of stress but stress is not the cause of the gray, it just makes it more visible. In times of stress, older hairs tend to fall out quicker revealing the newer gray that was always there but you couldn’t see because of the colored hair. To add insult to injury, those hairs that have fallen out will when they grow back likely be replaced by new gray hairs (just because its now their turn, not stress). I saw this happen to a relative, but everyone concentrated on the stress and “graying overnight” and missed the fact that she was past 50 with no gray hair, it was just a case that it was now time for her hair to catch up with her age, which it did very quickly. I though it was interesting to note that many of those saying how she went ‘gray overnight” were younger and had been dying their own hair for years.

    To me I don’t worry about it. I find gray hair on a woman very very attractive, I think it shows a certain sense of self confidence that is very sexy, and the women seem to like mine 😉

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