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Shades of Gray: Everything You Want or Don’t Want to Know About Gray Hair

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Shades of Gray: Everything You Want or Don’t Want to Know About Gray Hair

Whether you just found your first one, or you’ve already attained silver-fox status, gray hair is an eventuality most men (and women of course) have to come to terms with. Its appearance can prompt a man to anxiously take stock of his mortality, embrace the gray as a badge of his hard-earned maturity, or simply decide that if it’s good enough for George Clooney, it’s good enough for him. Potentially more traumatizing perhaps is that first gray pubic hair, regarding which, Mr. Clooney cannot as readily reassure us. Wherever it pops up, gray hair often invites the use of tweezers, clippers, or even hair coloring, which makes millions of dollars for the men’s hair-product market. Sooner or later, the gray will win, so you may as well get to know it and live in peace together. Along with it comes a plethora of questions and myths that we address here in the hope of enlightening your gray years.

So-called “gray” hair would seem to come in many shades - salt and pepper, silver, pewter, charcoal and just plain white. The truth is that all these ostensibly different variations are but different mixes of white with the preexisting color that’s fading out. It all comes down to is melanin, the pigment that gives hair (and skin) its hue. Melanin cells are found in the skin’s follicles, tiny sacs under the skin that produce hair. As hairs form, they are infused with the melanin pigment. Melanin basically comes in either light or dark. It’s the amount that goes into a hair strand, as well as the particular mix that determine hair color. At some point, melanin production in the follicles starts slowing down and then dies off altogether, a process called apoptosis. Some scientists think that the accumulation of hydrogen peroxide that is naturally produced in the hair blocks melanin production. Everyone's hair cells produce hydrogen peroxide, but as we get older our cells can’t break it down as well. The result is not unlike the process of peroxiding hair blonde, but from the inside out and more thoroughly so that no pigment remains.

There is some evidence that blondes actually do go gray faster, meaning the whole process takes less time. The compensation, however, is that the graying is usually less noticeable in blondes than in dark-haired men. This is again because “gray” hair is really white, which more readily blends in with blonde hair. At root, when and how you turn gray comes down to the genes you inherit from your parents. While your lifestyle may or may not figure into the mix, generally speaking, the onset of gray in your parents is a pretty good indicator of what you can expect. Your ethnicity plays a role as well. According to the National Health Institute, Caucasians tend to gray earlier than Asians or Blacks. Regardless of your background, research has shown that after age 30, your chance of going gray increases 10 to 20 percent with each decade. But don’t stress; a 2012 survey found that only between 6 and 23 percent of the population can expect to have 50 percent gray hair at age 50.

Speaking of stress, while you may have heard tales about people’s hair turning gray or white from stress (even overnight), it’s highly unlikely. Contrary to popular belief, stress has not been shown to cause gray hair. Of course, we’ve all watched President Obama go gray since his inauguration, but most likely that’s just timing, as there is no scientific evidence that stress speeds up graying. What stress can cause is temporary hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, and this in turn can cause the hair to grow back less pigmented than the original, which can mean more gray. So while stress may not be a direct cause, probably a good idea to keep up the yoga practice and keep as much of your hair as possible.

We also know that stress uses up B vitamins. Experiments with mice deprived of pantothenic acid have resulted in their hair going white, while some studies in humans have shown that large doses of B vitamins can help reverse the graying process. Still, this is highly experimental. There is also evidence that smoking can make your hair turn gray sooner. One study found a connection between smoking and graying before age 30. So you may as well ditch the cigarettes while keeping up the yoga. Then there’s sun. While it is a leading cause of skin aging and wrinkles, apparently the sun has little effect on graying. Gray hair is, however, more susceptible to sun damage because it has less melanin. So wearing a hat or applying a hair product with SPF can help keep gray hair from getting dry and brittle.

That about covers any gray on your head, but what about your whiskers? Why is it that so often men’s beards go gray first and faster? This again brings us back to the melanin in hair follicles. Because facial hair grows faster than the hair on your head, the follicles are simply depleted of pigment faster as well. Don’t let it freak you out – just look to George and say, “This can work for me too.” Whether the gray’s coming in on your face or on your pubes, best to not start plucking. Plucking doesn’t actually remove the hair follicle, so a new gray hair is likely to grow back in. What’s worse, using the tweezers can permanently damage the follicle so that hair won’t grow back at all, which means you could end up with a very unsexy bald spot in lieu of silver.

What about dyeing? While it’s also been shown to not affect the graying process, it certainly affects the way you look. Unless you’re a punk or Goth, hair that’s dyed overly dark can look unappealingly artificial and harsh. If you do want to try dyeing, go to a professional colorist who knows how to blend shades in with your own hair color and the gray to produce a more natural look. If it’s blue, pink or violet you’re after, then obviously artifice is not an issue. There’s also the Andy Warhol solution: get a white wig and never have to worry about going gray. But before you do anythingr rash, take another look at George and see if all that gray he’s got going on might not work for you too.  

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