Spotting your first gray hair can feel like a monumental event in the aging process. You can easily feel like one day you have a head full of lush, colored hair then one day your mane is sprinkled with salt and pepper hair, your knees don’t let you get low when that song comes on, and you’re paying way too much attention to who’s on your lawn.
Okay, we may be stretching with the last two, but it feels like going gray is the gateway to feeling old. So imagine if hair graying becomes a reality when you’re only in your twenties? For many people it's a regular occurance and according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, NYC-based board-certified dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, it’s pretty normal. If you’ve experienced early hair graying and you’re curious why — or asking for a friend — keep reading as we take a deeper dive into what causes gray hair in your 20s.
What Causes Gray Hair?
While the function of hair color in humans is still debatable, it’s undeniable that over the years we’ve used it as an aesthetic tool and it has played a role in self-image. According to the National Library of Medicine, our hair color comes from pigment melanin produced by melanocytes and is closely tied to stages of the hair cycle (hair is actively pigmented in the growth phase, pigmentation is sort of paused during the transition phase and absent during resting phase).
Hair graying happens when the pigment cells in the hair follicle die, which typically occurs with age. While this explains the biological process of gray hair, there’s more to why one person may be gray at 25 and another at 45.
Why Am I Getting Gray Hair in My 20s?
While you may have heard a bunch of different theories about why people get gray hair altogether, there may not be as many explanations about premature graying. Everything from your job to too much hair dyeing has made the list, but Dr. Zeichner says there are a number of reasons — you may have your parents to thank.
“Going gray is thought to be due to your genetics,” he says. “We don’t understand why it happens but it’s thought to be due to free radical damage within the hair follicles. If you have a family history of early graying then you are likely to go gray early also. And unfortunately, gray hairs develop both on the scalp and in the eyebrows or even in hair below the neck.”
He further explains that significant stress and the environment could also play a part in going gray, including UV light exposure.
“It [could also be a] combination of genetics and environment,” Dr. Zeichner continues. “We know that UV light exposure can damage the skin and promote free radical damage which can have an impact on the hair follicles. So theoretically, excessive exposure to UV light may contribute to premature graying of the hair.”
“Similarly, we know that stress has a harmful effect on the body, preventing wound healing and contributing to inflammation. For this reason, stress may also contribute to premature graying. This may make graying worse in people who are already genetically susceptible, or perhaps lead to graying in people who would not necessarily have gone gray otherwise.”
Does Gray Hair Indicate Poor Health?
The good news is that going gray does not mean that there is any underlying sign of a health issue, according to Dr. Zeichnner. However, “if there’s no family history, and you’re developing significant graying at an early age, you certainly can visit your doctor and make sure there are no underlying issues like a thyroid condition.”
Further, he confirms that while early graying may occur in the 20s or 30s, it is extremely uncommon to see gray hair on someone in their teens. In other words, if your 15-year-old has gone gray, you may want to consult with a professional and not wave it off as a family trait.
Does Smoking Cause Early Hair Graying?
If you smoke and hear anti-smoking advocates making a connection between your constant puffing and your silvery strands, you may want to listen up. The Indian Dermatology Online Journal cited a direct correlation between cigarette smoking and early onset graying (which they defined as going gray before the age of 30) based on an observational study of 207 participants.
Though the sample is small and there were many limiting factors in the study to draw the conclusion that smoking undoubtedly has a causal effect on achromotrichia (the absence or loss of pigment in the hair), if you’re looking for an excuse to put the cigarettes down, this one is as good as any.
Can You Reverse Gray Hair in Your 20s?
So, now that you know the reason behind those silver strands of yours, you may be wondering if there’s anything you can do to stop them. The short answer is no — you can’t stop gray hair from sprouting, nor can you reverse the graying process. The good doctor does offer some solace in the form of hair care.
“While there is no way to stop or reverse the graying process, antioxidant scalp serums may offer some benefit,” he says. “Free radical damage is thought to contribute to the graying process. The mechanism is unclear, but it is thought that the free radicals damage the pigment producing cells within the hair follicles. Using an antioxidant can help neutralize any free radicals to prevent damage to the follicle and [potentially slow] the graying process.”
Note that he says that an antioxidant serum will not help the hair itself — since hair is made of dead keratin — but it can help calm inflammation in the scalp. In order to address the actual gray hair you’ll need to turn to hair dye or hair gloss.
Luckily, there are some great DIY permanent hair dyes on the market and at-home hair gloss treatments that you can turn to for this. We love L’Oréal Paris Excellence Creme Cool Supreme Permanent Gray Coverage Hair Color, which is specifically formulated for gray hair coverage and even colors the most stubborn grays. L’Oréal Paris Superior Preference Fade-Defying Shine Permanent Hair Color also offers rich, luminous color that resists fading for up to eight weeks.
For an easy to use hair gloss, reach for the L’Oréal Paris Le Color Gloss One Step In-Shower Toning Gloss. This 15-minute treatment comes in 16 colors and can be used in the shower for a tint refresh in addition to a deep conditioning of your strands.
How Do You Embrace Gray Hair?
If you’ve found yourself asking, can gray hair be attractive, then you’ve missed the countless celebs and social media creators who’ve made the term “silver fox” an understatement. No matter their skin tone, hair type or hair length, anyone can make gray hair work for them. Four of the aforementioned Le Color Gloss One Step In-Shower Toning Gloss shades are silver, made to enhance the hue of gray hair.
For the gents who want a hair color for men, specifically, L’Oréal Paris Men Expert One-Twist Permanent Hair Color blends grays in just five minutes so you can get as much or as little gray hair coverage as you want. It comes with a no-mess, easy-to-use, twist applicator so you can DIY your gray hair dye job. Either way, you can embrace going gray no matter your age.
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