QUESTION: “What are the main causes of grey or white hair at an early age?”
DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your question.
This question is personal to me, too. I still remember when my dad took me to his barber when I was about 10 or 11 years old.
It was a Sunday afternoon outing… just me and him. My dad was loyal to his barber, so even though my family had moved out of the city, we still drove about 30 minutes (one-way) to get to his go-to barbershop.
At some point during my haircut, the barber said to my dad, “Hey, Gil… your son must be stressed out, he’s already got some grey hair.” It didn’t really bother me at the time. By the time I got to high school, there were a few more that popped up.
They weren’t super-obvious, but if you spent more than a few seconds staring at the back of my head, you could spot a few glistening in the sun. That’s when my friends started to notice. They would say, “Dude, you’ve already got some grey hair.” I would say, “I know and thanks for noticing.”
I would then tell them that they probably have some grey hair too, it’s just easier to see on my head because my hair is jet black… so, you know, the contrast was more noticeable. It was funny to watch them squirm when I said that. Even though, at the time, I was just making stuff up to get my friends off the topic of my prematurely greying hair, it turns out that I was kinda sorta right.
Seeking easy ways to improve your health and fitness? Join our free 5-day email course to get started.
Racial or Ethnic Groups and Premature Greying
Researchers have found that there are some racial or ethnic groups that are more likely to experience premature greying.
First, I should mention that, globally, most people start to experience some graying of the hair around age 45. But in certain racial and ethnic groups, it may start sooner.
Studies have found that those of Caucasian descent are more likely to experience early greying. Asians are next in line, followed by those of African descent. In fact, because this trend is so well-known, dermatologists (medical doctors that specialize in skin disorders) have different age cutoffs for each racial or ethnic group when determining if someone is experiencing premature greying.
In those of Caucasian heritage, someone would be considered prematurely greying if they experience this before the age of 20. In Asians, before the age of 25, and in those with African heritage, before the age of 30.
Premature White Hair and The Genetic Component
So there seems to be a genetic component to early greying. If a first-degree relative like your mother, father, brother, or sister experienced early greying, you’re more likely to experience it too.
If you find that your hair is turning grey before some of these age cutoffs, it could be genetic. There’s always that evolutionary question – “What possible survival advantage does having grey hair have??”
Well, there’s an interesting theory is that grey hair grows faster than normal hair and tends to provide more insulation. So, grey hair may have led to a survival advantage for trapping heat on our heads.
Premature White Hair and Medical Conditions
But scientists have also discovered that there may be something else going on. For example, there are underlying medical conditions that could be contributing to premature greying. Some autoimmune conditions can cause it, like certain thyroid conditions. There’s a syndrome called Werner’s syndrome that leads to premature aging. Werner’s syndrome is rare, though.
Melanin and Hair Color
We know that the reason our hair (and skin for that matter) has color is because of a pigment called melanin. In some people, harmful compounds called free radicals start to build up in the scalp. These free radicals damage the cells that produce our skin and hair pigment.
Damaged pigment cells means less pigment produced which can lead to greying of the hair.
What Causes Damaged Pigment Cells?
So, what can cause the buildup of these free radicals?
It turns out that smoking cigarettes is highly related to premature greying. Smoking cigarettes exposes the body to lots of free radicals and these free radicals can buildup in the scalp, damaging the cells that produce melanin. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation can also lead to this same effect – basically overexposure to sunlight.
But other than these two risk factors, and some other underlying condition, there doesn’t seem to be any other strong lifestyle connections to premature greying. More studies are needed to determine whether diet, exercise, and stress for example are actually related to premature greying.
Premature White Hair: Conclusion
So, what should we do? Whether you’re already experiencing premature greying or want to slow down the process, quitting smoking and avoiding excess sun exposure can be helpful. Reducing sun exposure could include wearing a hat when you go outside of course, but you could also apply sunscreen to your hair and scalp.
Some shampoos also contain ultraviolet blockers, so it may be worthwhile to discuss those with your dermatologist.
Other than that, when it comes to the main cause of premature aging, we can blame our genetics.