Dermatology

What you should know about white hair

It is normal for hair color to change, as people age. But white hair can appear at almost any time in life. Even teenagers and people in their 20s may notice strands of white hair.

The human body has millions of hair follicles or small sacs lining the skin. The follicles generate hair and color or pigment cells that contain melanin. Over time, hair follicles lose pigment cells, resulting in white hair color.

In this article, we look at some common causes of prematurely white hair, along with ways to slow the graying process down or prevent it, in some instances.

Fast facts about white hair:

  • Vitamin deficiencies can cause hair to turn white prematurely.
  • Smoking has long been linked to premature graying.
  • Preventing white hair depends on its cause.

Causes of white hair

There can be many causes besides age that result in a person’s hair turning white.

Vitamin deficiencies

White and gray hairs growing on person's head.
White and gray hairs may start to grow at any age, and may be caused by a range of different factors.

Any deficiencies of vitamin B-6, B-12, biotin, vitamin D, or vitamin E can contribute to premature graying.

One 2015 report in the journal Development notes various deficiency studies on vitamin D-3, vitamin B-12, and copper and their connection to graying hair. It finds nutritional deficiencies affect pigmentation, suggesting color can return with vitamin supplementation.

A 2016 study reported in the International Journal of Trichology looked to factors related to premature graying in young Indians under 25 years of age. It found low levels of serum ferritin, which stores iron in the body, vitamin B-12, and the good cholesterol HDL-C were common in participants with premature hair graying.

Genetics

Premature graying of a person’s hair is largely connected to genetics, according to a 2013 report in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology.

Race and ethnicity play roles, as well. Premature graying in white people can start as early as 20 years old, while a person can be as young as 25 years old among Asians, and 30 years in African-Americans populations, according to the same 2013 study.

Oxidative stress

While graying is mostly genetic, oxidative stress in the body may play a part when the process happens prematurely.

Oxidative stress causes imbalances when antioxidants are not enough to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage cells, contributing to aging and disease.

Too much oxidative stress can promote the development of diseases, including the skin-pigment condition vitiligo. Vitiligo may also turn the hair white due to melanin cell death or the loss of cell function.

Certain medical conditions

Some medical conditions, including autoimmune diseases, may increase a person’s risk for graying early. In fact, research published in 2008 showed a connection between hair abnormalities and thyroid dysfunction.

White hair is also common in alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin condition that causes hair loss on the scalp, face and other parts of the body. When the hair grows back, it tends to be white due to melanin deficiency.

Real-life stressors

Stressed man working on laptop with white and gray hair
It is commonly thought that stress may lead to hair becoming white prematurely. However, studies have not conclusively proved this.

There are conflicting research studies on real-life stress, such as that caused by injury, leading to premature graying.

One study from New York University, reported in Nature Medicine, finds that the cells responsible for hair color can be depleted when the body is under stress.

Other studies indicate that while stress may play a part, it is only a small part of a bigger picture where disease and other factors contribute.

Smoking

A study from 2013 reported in the Italian Dermatology Online Journal, shows that smokers are 2 1/2 times more likely to start graying before age 30 as non-smokers.

A 2015 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology also demonstrated that smoking is linked to premature white hair in young men.

Chemical hair dyes and hair products

Chemical hair dyes and hair products, even shampoos, can contribute to premature hair graying. Many of these products contain harmful ingredients that decrease melanin.

Hydrogen peroxide, which is in many hair dyes, is one such harmful chemical. Excessive use of products that beach hair will also eventually cause it to turn white.


Prevention and reversing premature white hair

If genetics or aging is the cause, nothing can prevent or reverse the process. However, treating graying hair could allow color pigmentation to return if the loss is due to a medical condition.

When diet and vitamin deficiencies are the cause of prematurely white hair, correcting these may reverse the problem or stop it from worsening.

Eating more antioxidants

Man and woman shopping for fruits and vegetables in supermarket.
Eating a diet with lots of antioxidant-rich foods, including vegetables and fruits, may help to prevent hair from graying.

A person’s diet plays a part in preventing white hair. A diet rich in antioxidants can reduce oxidative stress.

Antioxidant-rich foods include:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables
  • green tea
  • olive oil
  • fish

Addressing deficiencies

Anyone who has white hair resulting from a vitamin deficiency should consume more foods loaded with those vitamins.

For example, seafood, eggs, and meats are good sources of vitamin B-12, and milk, salmon, and cheese are excellent sources of vitamin D.

Vitamin supplements that are available over the counter can also correct deficiencies.

Quitting smoking

Smoking has adverse effects on the body and contributes to white hair. And researchers have found a link between the habit and loss of hair pigmentation.

Natural remedies

There are plenty of hair dyes on the market that cover white hair, but many of these contribute to premature graying and may cause allergic and adverse reactions.

Natural remedies offer an alternative to slow down hair-whitening without harming the body or causing further hair pigment damage.

Curry leaves. The medicinal use of curry leaves goes back centuries. When combined with hair oil and applied to the scalp, curry leaves can slow premature graying.

One report in the International Journal of PharmTech Research highlights the traditional use of curry leaves to retain black hair color and even prevent premature graying. Curry leaves can be purchased at Indian supermarkets, as well as traditional grocery stores.

Bhringaraj. The false daisy or bhringaraj will darken hair and keep it from becoming white early, according to some reports. The juice of the leaves is boiled in coconut oil or sesame oil and massaged into the hair.

Bhringaraj leaves can be purchased at many reputable online retailers and are available in oil form.

Indian gooseberry. Also called amla, this is an herbal supplement recognized for reversing premature graying by promoting pigmentation. Its effectiveness is believed to be because the gooseberry is rich in antioxidants and anti-aging properties.

Amla is available as a fruit in Indian grocery stores. It can also be found, as a powder or supplement, available online or in a traditional health food store. The powder can be mixed with coconut oil and applied directly to the scalp.

Black tea. Black tea can make hair darker, shinier and softer. It can be used by steeping 3 to 5 tea bags in 2 cups of boiling water, cooling and adding to clean, wet hair. Tea can also be mixed with conditioner, left in the hair for 1 hour, and then rinsed out.

Copper. Low copper levels can lead to premature graying, according to one 2012 study. Good food sources of copper are beef liver, lentils, almonds, dark chocolate, and asparagus.

Ridge gourd. The ridge gourd is known for restoring hair pigment and stimulating the roots of the hair. Regular massaging of ridge gourd oil can prevent hair from turning white. The oil can be purchased online.


Takeaway

With the right diagnosis and treatments, white hair progression can be stopped and reversed in some instances. A balanced diet and good hair care can also help. In some cases, however, the process is irreversible.

Regular use of natural remedies may slow down and possibly reverse white hair. But everyone’s hair eventually starts to turn white, and the individual has to decide whether they are comfortable with the white or if they prefer to try and hold back what is a natural aging process.

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