Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
One day you’re looking in the mirror at a full head of hair, not a gray hair in sight. Then suddenly, you’re sporting a salt-and-pepper look that’s more salt than pepper. Now you’re wondering: why is my hair turning white, and what can I do to get rid of it?
First, don’t be too hard on yourself. Like whiskey, wine or bad haircuts, you’re just getting better with age. And second, getting to the root of what causes white hair isn’t that complicated.
But we understand if you’re growing increasingly frustrated with the number of white hairs popping up, especially if you’re in your 20s or 30s and experiencing white hair at a young age, or premature graying of hair.
White hairs can sprout for a number of reasons, whether you have an AARP membership or are at the pinnacle of youth, and no matter what your hair care routine is. We’re going to explore the causes of white hair and how to prevent gray hair (or if it’s even possible).
You may have dressed up as Gandalf the Grey for one Halloween, but you’re not an aging wizard. So why does hair turn gray?
No need to turn to Alexa to ask “why does hair turn white” — we’ll explain the various reasons for hair graying, as well as reasons you might have prematurely white hair.
The simplest answer to why hair turns white? A loss of melanin or pigment. White hair occurs when the hair follicles are completely deprived of melanosomes and color. Melanosomes are responsible for producing and storing melanin — the pigmentation behind hair’s coloring.
Melanosomes are produced by melanocytes (the pigment cells at the base of hair follicles that produce color), which die as part of the natural aging process. As they die, it results in less and less melanin production, which is why we get gray, and eventually white, hairs.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg regarding white hair causes — and it doesn’t even cover what causes white hair at an early age.
Let’s dive into some of these other causes of white hair.
A lot of your features — your height, skin type, even dimples — are determined by the genes you inherit from your mom and dad. There’s even a connection between hair growth and genetics.
Another trait your parents may have passed down? Good old hair pigmentation, even premature graying.
Ethnicity plays a role as well — on average, premature graying starts in Caucasian people around 20 years of age and around 30 years old in African Americans, while those of Asian descent are most likely to start getting white hair in their mid-20s. Whenever you start going gray, there’s a good chance your mom, dad or grandparents went through the same dilemma you’re facing in the mirror right now.
While you may slowly go grayer as you age (the same way hair growth slows down as you get older), fighting genes is near impossible. So if your parents have gone gray, your best bet is to employ hair dye or simply rock out with your white locks.
If you look at a picture of former President Obama when he first started the job and a picture from when he left the White House, you might notice one big difference — the color of his hair.
While we may not have jobs with as much responsibility as the President of the United States, any work can come with its own stressors. This can result in stress hair loss, and possibly a head of white hair as well, although the evidence for that is pretty limited.
In a study carried out on mice, scientists were able to show that stress can cause hair to gray by triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol.
These triggers sped up the depletion of melanocyte stem cells necessary for hair color and led to graying.
While finding a precise cause of hair graying proved difficult, the study found that the sympathetic nervous system plays a key role in stress-induced graying. However, more research is required to understand the interactions between the nervous system and cells in different tissues and organs, meaning there’s inconclusive proof linking stress with hair graying or whitening.
Unless of course “stress” refers to “oxidative stress.”
Oxidative stress is the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidant defenses in the body. It’s a common link in aging-related diseases, and is known to cause premature graying of hair. To understand how, let’s get a little technical.
Remember how melanocytes produce melanin? During this process, chemicals like hydrogen peroxide and other free radicals are also produced. This can place the melanocytes under oxidative stress.
Also culpable in oxidative stress? External damage — like UV exposure. Hair pigments function to protect hair proteins from light damage, but external oxidative stress can damage your hair health and lead to pigments becoming bleached.
We don’t need to tell you all the cons of smoking. But one negative result of smoking cigarettes you may not know about? It’s one of the possible causes of white hair.
Nicotine, which is consumed when smoking, may damage melanocytes through oxidative stress.
This damage affects the body’s production of melanin, which may ultimately lead to hair discoloration.
A study carried out on a mixed group of 207 people with normal and premature hair graying determined smokers were 2.5 times more likely to gray prematurely. Something to remember (in addition to the connection between smoking and hair loss) the next time you feel the urge to light up.
You may or may not know that diet hair loss is a thing. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you may experience protein deficiency hair loss, while certain vitamin deficiencies can cause hair loss as well. Fortunately, there are hair vitamins and supplements to help rectify this and grow back healthy hair.
One small study of just over 50 participants found that a vitamin B12 deficiency, as well as biotin deficiencies, were associated with gray hair.
Another study performed on 100 Indian students also noted the effects of a vitamin B12 deficiency on hair graying.
Just like there are illnesses that cause hair loss, white hair at a young age may be caused by something more serious than simply getting up in years. Specifically, white or gray hair could indicate the presence of an illness.
Medical conditions like vitiligo, a skin condition where melanocytes are destroyed, and alopecia areata — an autoimmune disease where the body attacks hair follicles and causes them to shrink, which leads to hair falling out and slows down hair production — are perfect examples. Re-grown hairs usually appear white.
Hormonal changes from thyroid disorders like hyperthyroidism may be responsible for your premature white hair.
The thyroid actually plays a big role in hair color and if your thyroid is overactive or underactive, it can result in a reduction of melanin production. Fewer thyroid hormones can mean premature graying and even thyroid hair loss.
Now to answer the other big question on your mind: how to prevent white hair.
Can white hair be prevented? Depends on the root cause.
Deficiencies in certain nutrients like biotin and vitamin B12 are fairly simple fixes. Or if you smoke, add “preventing gray hair” to the list of many reasons why you should stop. And just as there are ways to regain hair loss from stress, reducing stress may improve the chances of your hair not going full gray.
While vitiligo is a lifelong condition, alopecia areata can be treated using corticosteroids and immunotherapy. You can seek medical advice from a dermatologist or healthcare provider if you think you may have this condition.
But if white hair runs in your family, you may want to pick up a box of hair dye or embrace the gray.
If your hair going gray is affecting your confidence or you’re dealing with a serious illness, however, talking to a mental health professional through online therapy can help.
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How to prevent white hair depends on what’s causing it. While not all gray hair can be prevented, there are treatment options.
Thyroid treatment. If a thyroid disorder is the cause of your white hair, thyroid hormone treatment can prove to be helpful in reversing this change. While the effects are still being studied, these treatments show some promise.
Stock up on vitamin B12. Very limited studies have proven this, so don’t get too excited, but increasing vitamin B12 levels may help return your hair to its natural hue. Incorporating B12-rich foods like clams, liver and trout could help in restoring hair color.
Consume more essential minerals. A balanced diet full of nutrients could help your hair color, as well as improve your overall hair health. Supplementing your diet with meals rich in these nutrients might prove to reverse the appearance of white hair. Check out these essential vitamins for hair, as well as the best foods for hair growth for fuller hair.
Color your hair. If your premature gray hair is the result of genetics, it’s most likely permanent. That’s where hair products like dye or even special shampoos come in. The fun part is you can choose whatever color you want for repigmentation and switch things up.
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You’re not an elderly wizard, yet you have a head full of gray hair — and you’re barely out of your thirties. Or you’re looking up “white hair men” to see if you’re the only one. What’s up with that? Just like hair loss and male pattern baldness, there can be a few different reasons why.
As we get older, our hair follicles slowly produce less and less melanin (hair pigmentation), eventually becoming completely deprived of melanosomes and color and turning white.
The causes of white hair aren’t always within your control and can vary, from genetics and diseases or thyroid disorders to stress, smoking and nutrient deficiencies of biotin and vitamin B12.
Sometimes, white hair can be prevented. You can quit smoking, reduce your stress levels and add certain foods or vitamin supplements to your diet. But your gray hair is most likely permanent if it’s genetic.
Seeing your hair whitening at a young age can be frustrating. But there may be ways to deal with white hair at any age, depending on how it started. If you’re dealing with early signs of balding at the same time, you can also check out these hair loss treatments.