I found my first gray hair months before my 27th birthday—and minutes after watching Moonstruck. I’d chattered to my boyfriend about Cher’s salt-and-peppers curls as the 1987 movie played, saying how refreshing it was to see a woman with silver in her hair on a screen. However—spoilers for the decades-old movie ahead—I was stockstill when, partway through the film, the character decides to “take out the gray” during her pursuit of a younger man. I didn’t need to explain to my boyfriend, or anyone, how that felt to watch: Cher’s character was doing what was expected of her. And not an hour later, as I stood in front of my bathroom mirror examining the snow-white hair near the front of my head, I realized I’d reached that crossroads for myself.
It’s important to note that this happened in May, two months into quarantine, and that I was far from the only person processing how their naturally graying hair made them feel. Since then, many have undoubtedly mastered the art of the box dye, or have had their grays whisked away by a colorist after their salon reopened. But, regardless of your approach to the inevitable color shift, what causes gray hair in the first place—and can you reverse it? And how do you go “gracefully gray,” anyway? Below, the professionals’ guide to embracing gray hair from every angle.
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What causes gray hair?
According to Dr. Marie Hayag, a New York City board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Fifth Avenue Aesthetics, both genetic predisposition and “environmental factors” can cause gray hair—and, of course, age. “The human body has millions of hair follicles that line the skin and generate hair and color. Over time, these hair follicles can lose their ability to produce color which can result in gray hair. This occurs when your body stops generating melanin, which gives your hair its color,” she explains. (The pigments, eumelanin for brunettes and dark hair and pheomelanin for blondes and red hair, are produced along the hair shaft.)
“Also, as we age, the cells in our hair bulb produce a little bit of hydrogen peroxide, which is a metabolic byproduct, and typically there’s an enzyme called catalase that breaks this down to water and oxygen,” Hayag continues. “But as we age, there’s declining levels of catalase, and this allows the build-up of hydrogen peroxide in the hair bulb, which damages and destroys the melanocytes, or the pigment-producing cells, of our hair.”
There isn’t a set time this occurs, though—and what constitutes as “premature graying” is far younger than you might suspect. Hayag says that Caucasian people “can start getting gray hair as early as 20 years old,” with that age pushed back to 25 for Asian people and 30 for Black people. This doesn’t mean that you will go gray at these ages, though; “The average age when graying begins [for Caucasians] is reportedly mid thirties. People of Asian descent tend to gray a little later, late thirties, and people of African descent even later—mid forties,” adds Dr. Jeni Thomas, P&G Principal Scientist.
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Does stress actually cause your hair to gray?
Consider stress one of those outside factors. “While there is conflicting research whether stress can cause gray hair, there has been a study published by NYU concluding that hair cells that produce pigment may degenerate when a person is stressed. In addition, stress can trigger a common condition called telogen effluvium. This causes hair to shed about three times faster than normal. When a person is middle aged, the hair that can grow back may be gray rather than colored,” explains Hayag. “Lastly, oxidative stress in the body has been linked to gray hair. Oxidative stress causes imbalances to the body when free radicals damage cells. When there aren’t enough antioxidants to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals, it can lead to aging and diseases such as vitiligo.”
Let’s be real, though—if something is stressing you out this much, you probably can’t snap your fingers and make it go away (and Hayag confirms that, “There is no miracle cure to reverse gray hair”). Rather than stress about your stress levels, concentrate on the external factors that cause gray hair but are still within your control. Hayag lists nutritional deficiencies including vitamin B12, folate, copper, iron, and calcium as causes, as well as smoking, since it adds to aforementioned oxidative stress, and a sugar-rich diet.
“A gene called IRF4 (interferon regulatory factor 4) has been discovered that causes gray hair but still, genetics isn’t necessarily destiny,” she adds. “The IRF4 gene accounts for about 30 percent of gray hair, with environmental factors—including, perhaps, stress—accounting for the rest.”
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How does your hair color and type determine how you go gray?
“The underlying biology is similar across hair types, even if the age of onset can vary with ethnicity. The experience may be different by hair type and color: Grays are more noticeable for those of us with darker hair (I’m sure that goes without saying), while blondes can go for years blissfully unaware that grays have gracefully mixed in with their blonde strands,” explains Thomas. She adds that the gray transition can seem slower for curly hair types, simply because “it can take much longer for curly hair to look longer when it goes through many twists and turns down the length.”
“Because of the corresponding change in hair texture that occurs with all graying, most hair types—whether curly, straight, wavy or natural—experience a discrepancy between the texture of gray hair and regularly pigmented hairs,” says Hayag. “People with naturally curly hair will typically notice gray hairs curl up even tighter, while those with straight or slightly wavy hair most commonly experience breakage with their gray hairs, which when found on the part or hairline, causes them to stick up.”
Wondering what causes gray hair to feel “wiry”? Hayag has an answer for that, too. “While gray hair feels coarse and rough, the structure of the strand hasn’t actually changed. When those melanin-producing cells run out of steam, the hair follicles also produce less sebum (the natural oils that hydrate hair) which makes gray hair to be drier, giving it that wiry texture,” she explains.
How can you transition your hair to gray?
Equipped with all this scientific know-how, you’re ready to tackle the other side of the coin—your actual hair color. Manny Rolon, an Oribe Educator, points out that gracefully going gray can be just as much about returning to your natural color in general if you’re someone who’s often dyed their hair. “Going gray can be a lengthy process to remove color that has built up over the years. Having a good and honest consultation with your hair care professional can give you a proper indication on how much time that first big appointment will take,” says Rolon. “Moving forward, maintaining steady salon appointments and at-home care is imperative to preserve healthy, gray hair.”
How do you help blend your grays into the rest of your hair as it transitions?
From this point, you have two options: Do you want to completely cover your gray strands, or let nature take its course? If you vote for the latter, eSalon Hair Colorist Leianna Hillo offers three solutions for blending while you gray: demi-permanent hair color, highlights, or a combining both approaches. “Demi-permanent hair color is great at blending, but not fully covering, grays, giving the hair a slightly highlighted look. This is an easy and seamless way to transition to gray if you don’t mind your hair looking slightly highlighted,” she says. “To help break up the demarcation lines you get from permanent hair color, have your stylist add highlights or add them at home yourself. Highlights can blend in with grays and make the grow-out phase a little easier. You’ll love this option if you have a salt and pepper finish with gray that already threads through your hair. After a few applications, your regrowth will be less and less noticeable.”
How should you dye gray hair?
Even if you’d rather cover your gray hair, Rolon recommends using demi-permanent color, too. “Instead of spot covering with permanent color, using a semi-permanent or a demi-permanent color all over can partially cover the non-pigmented gray hairs while also adding nourishing properties to the hair,” he explains. “The reason for this is that on a molecular level, pigment and moisture go hand in hand. Adding pigment also increases moisture in hair, which is why a semi-permanent color will usually leave your hair feeling nourished and hydrated.”
Looking for coverage that won’t fade? Permanent color can definitely get the job done, as well. “Permanent hair color is the best if you want full, 100% gray coverage,” says Hillo. “Most colorists will tell you that if you’re more than 25% gray, permanent hair color is for you. Unlike demi-permanent, the permanent dye is in it for the long haul, providing a rich, longer-lasting color that doesn’t fade quickly.”
Which goes back to the most important point when it comes to gray hair: it’s all about preference. Maybe you want to color your grays away before you meet Nicolas Cage for date night (sorry, more Moonstruck spoilers). Maybe you love the look, whether you prefer the color itself—silver has been trending lately—or it just feels right. “Regardless of age or ethnicity or hair type, the experience of finding those first few gray hairs is almost always universal,” says Hayag. “It is undeniable evidence that we’re getting older.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.