Gray hair: What causes it?

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Gray hair: What causes it?

Question

What causes hair to turn gray?

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Answer

Gray hair is typically a result of natural aging. Pigment in the hair shaft comes from special cells at the root (base) of the hair. These cells are genetically programmed to make a certain amount of pigment (melanin) at specific ages. At some point in the aging process, these cells make less and less pigment until the hair has very little pigment. White hair has no pigment, and gray hair has some but not as much as a red, black or brown hair.

Not all hairs respond in the same way or at the same time. So the graying process usually is gradual. You can't prevent graying. Some people start graying in their 30s, and some not until their 60s. Genetics likely play a strong role in graying.

People rarely go gray overnight. If they do, it's typically due to alopecia areata. This condition causes the thicker, darker hairs to stop growing before it affects the growth of gray hairs — giving the impression of graying overnight. Alopecia areata eventually causes roundish patches of hair loss or complete loss of hair on the head or body. Its cause isn't known.

Last Updated: 05/17/2006
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