Featured Image for Techly Explains: What causes hair to turn grey?

Techly Explains: What causes hair to turn grey?

It seems, speaking from a still relatively young perspective, that the two most annoying things about getting older is the fact that the best case scenario is that you can’t avoid it, and that it seems like a whole lot of effort. 

Think about it, when was the last time you heard anyone over the age of 45 get out of a chair without sounding like a tennis player?

And while we might not have a decent reason for that, we can at least look into another common phenomenon and work out why exactly people’s hair takes it upon itself to up and turn grey.

The first thing that should be noted is that process is actually determined on a genetic level. That may be something which sounds fairly obvious but, as reported by the BBC, the specific gene that causes the change, the snappily named IRF4 was actually only outed to the public earlier this year.

This does mean that there is a potential for genetic manipulation to put a stop to the whole business in the future, but before we get to that sleek, raven-haired utopia future, it’s worth knowing what’s happening.

For that, let’s hand over to the Library of Congress (LoC) who tell us in no uncertain terms that the whole thing is an issue of pigmentation. Pigmentation is an umbrella term concerning the amount, type and distribution of melanin, which is also responsible for the difference in the colouring of people’s hair and skin.

The connection therefore is fairly straightforward, but to understand the colouration we need to take a closer look at the manner in which hair grows in the first place. To that end the growth of hair is made up of three steps:

Anagen – the actual growth of the hair fibre, which can last between 2-7 years and which accounts for anything up to 85% of our hair at any given time.
Catagen – essentially a transitional phase where hair growth begins to slow down
Telogen – this takes place when the hair has stopped growing, causing the hair fibre to fall out, once this happens the process begins again in the anagen phase

In the words of the LoC the colour of hair is determined like so;

As the hair is being formed, melanocytes [specialist cells dedicated to pigment] inject pigment (melanin) into cells containing keratin. Keratin is the protein that makes up our hair, skin, and nails. Throughout the years, melanocyctes continue to inject pigment into the hair’s keratin, giving it a colorful hue. With age comes a reduction of melanin. The hair turns grey and eventually white.

Elsewhere on Cambridge University’s enlightening Naked Scientists forum, Dr. Desmond Tobin of Bradford University fame is quoted as suggesting that ‘the hair follicle has a ‘melanogentic clock’ which slows down or stops melanocyte activity, thus decreasing the pigment our hair receives’. Which explains the transition of colour over time and also why hair is always lighter at the roots.

So, in a nutshell, growing older causes a lessening of the production of melanin and therefore the colour in your hair. Seems straightforward enough, but some other things worth noting then:

  • We are born with all of the follicles (hair producing organs) that we will ever have, and the number degenerates throughout our lives
  • Stress does not necessarily have an effect on our hair, although nutrition can
  • Other external factors known to have an effect are climate, pollutants, toxins and chemical exposure
  • A group of scientists a few years ago described a process by which follicles produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, a build up of which can cause a loss of hair colour.
  • The chance of going grey is obviously related to age, but more specifically your chances of going grey increase by 10-20% for every decade over thirty years

So there we have it, although we may never come up with a definitive answer as to precisely what age people reach before a standard household printer begins to resemble a terrifying, alien piece of technology, at least you’ll know what’s going on with your hair.

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