Gray Hair: The Inside Scoop

It's easy to freak out a bit when you spot those first gray hairs in the mirror. But when you learn the inside scoop about gray hair, you'll have an easier time keeping them in perspective. Just because you found a few today doesn't necessarily mean that you'll wake up tomorrow with a full head of gray hair like newscaster Anderson Cooper or former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Gray hair biology

Remove a strand of hair from your hairbrush and look at it closely. Before that hair left your head, it was a lifeless protein (keratin). Its root lived in a hair follicle. This hair grew because of keratin deposits made in your hair follicles. Melanocytes, cells within the hair follicles, manufacture the pigment melanin -- the same pigment that gives your skin color. When melanin adds color to the keratin in the follicles, your hair turns your natural color. Unfortunately, it doesn't stay that color your whole life.

The melanin process works great until you begin to age, and then the production of melanin slows down. When this happens, some hairs begin to turn a shade of gray or white. The speed at which your hair turns gray is based mostly on genetics, but other factors can speed up the graying process, as well. Those other factors damage hair follicle cells through poor nutrition (B12 deficiency), excessive stress, certain thyroid conditions, a skin condition called vitiligo, early menopause and even smoking.

If you're like most people, your graying process will take decades, as one tiny follicle after another begins to lose its ability to produce melanin. Considering that an average head of hair contains approximately 100,000 hair follicles, don't panic when you notice those first rebellious, gray hairs. For most people, this is a long and very slow process.

Naturally, there are always exceptions to any rule. A minority of people turn gray within a short period of time. It's not because they were frightened by a scary event. Instead it's because their genetics triggered the pattern causing their hair follicles to turn gray at almost the same time. Some people consider this bad luck, while others embrace their gray hair with flair and style.

Gray hair strategies

Now that you know how and why your hair turns gray, you're probably noticing a texture change, as well. If you have fine or moderately fine hair, your new gray hairs will seem coarser in contrast. At times you'll feel like you're waging a battle between the two different textures. The fact that your hair's natural oil production slows down as you get older doesn't help. These changes demand a revised hair-care strategy.

Unless you absolutely must wash your hair every day because of style considerations, when you have a mixed head of gray hair, less-frequent washing is recommended. If you can skip a day here and there, your natural oils will build up and will make your mixed hair more manageable.

New strategies also include rethinking the hair products you use. Even if you've never used a hair conditioner before, now is the time to start to help control coarse, gray hairs. Also consider changing your shampoo, hair spray and body-building products with ones that contain more natural ingredients that won't dry your hair the way chemical-based products do.

Another popular strategy is to color your hair. Although the coloring process can damage your hair, coating the hair shaft will help minimize any differences in hair texture. Many women prefer coloring their gray hair during their younger years, but then stop the process when they get older and get tired of the expense and stress on their hair.

Gray hair and the inside scoop about how to care for it don't have to be difficult. When you pay attention to how your hair is changing and experiment with different hair products, you'll find the ones that work best for you.

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