Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    If there is one thing we all have in common, it is that we will all eventually go gray. (Published Thursday, Apr 1, 2010)

    If there is one thing we all have in common, it is that we will all eventually go gray.

    Every single one of us. But why?

    "Usually if you ask your parents and grandparents when they started going gray, you can get a pretty good picture of what your future looks like," said Dr. Vesna Patronic-Rosic at the University of Chicago. "I wouldn't blame them for it, but they are certainly partly responsible for it."

    That's because when, and how gray you will become, is absolutely in your genes. And the reason you get gray hair, is the shutdown of the very systems which give your hair color in the first place.

    Those are tiny cells called melanocytes. They're the pigment cells which determine, among other things, what color your hair will actually be. Hair grows in cycles, anywhere from three to five years. But the melanocytes can only regenerate themselves six or seven times.

    Then they call it quits. No more color. Hello gray.

    Although for the most part, it really isn't gray at all.

    "Most of the hair really doesn't have any pigment at all, and it is white," said Dr. Patronic-Rosic, noting that the surrounding hairs which still have color create an optical illusion that the colorless hairs are gray.

    Most Caucasians, she says, will start seeing gray hair by the time they are 30. Asians get a reprieve until their late 30's. African Americans may not see their first gray hair until they reach their forties.

    And we have come a long way from the "Does she or doesn't she?" days of the sixties. At the Brilli salon on North Ashland Avenue, patrons were matter-of-fact about a process which used to be a closely held secret.

    "Every woman I know gets their hair colored," said Leah Argento beneath a canopy of tin-foil. "Every woman I know."

    Owner Brenda Berry said the number is indeed at least 80 percent for her female patrons, and at least 20 percent of the men.

    "Somehow gray works better on men than it does on women," Berry said. "Women want to look soft. Gray hair is not soft."

    Fact and fiction? No, if you pluck a gray hair, two more will not grow back in its place. If you pluck them too much, eventually they just won't grow back at all. But there is one old wives' tale about gray hair that actually is true.

    You really can be scared into going gray.

    The malady is officially known as alopecia areata, sometimes known as Marie Antoinette syndrome. History tells us the ill-fated French queen went completely gray the night before her appointment with the guillotine.

    But Dr. Petronic-Rosic said what actually happens is that the pigmented hair falls out.

    "It's not that their hair turns white, but the only hair that's remaining, is white," she said.

    What about the well known assumption that somehow, gray hair in men suggests an air of wisdom or maturity?

    "I tend to agree with that," she said. "Especially since I've noticed a few gray hairs of my own!"

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