Scientists may have cracked the code as to why hair tends to go gray as we age. While collecting data on hair follicles in mice, scientists may have found the reasoning behind how and why hair turns gray. The new findings may actually give more insight into how gray hair could be preventable or reversed.
The process of hair turning gray starts with a type of stem cell called melanocytes, AKA McSCs, says the study, which was published in the journal Nature this week.
NYU researchers at the Grossman School of Medicine were aware that melanocytes — the mechanism that produces the pigment melanin — bring color to skin and eyes. They also know that that same pigment melanin is a major factor in hair color.
McSCs hang around in your hair follicles, where they receive a protein signal that tells them when to become mature cells. Mature cells release pigment and, voilà, you get your hair color.
But over the course of the study, researchers learned that McSCs actually move between microscopic compartments in hair follicles. Each compartment within a follicle has the power to give the MsSC a slightly different protein signal, which allows the cell to change between different levels of maturity.
As a person gets older, the maturity level of MsSCs gets more complex. As your hair grows and sheds in cycles, the more McSCs get stuck in one particular compartment called the hair follicle bulge.
“Our study adds to our basic understanding of how melanocyte stem cells work to color hair,” said study lead investigator Qi Sun, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone Health. “The newfound mechanisms raise the possibility that the same fixed positioning of melanocyte stem cells may exist in humans. If so, it presents a potential pathway for reversing or preventing the graying of human hair by helping jammed cells to move again between developing hair follicle compartments.”
When the McSCs are stick in the follicle bulge, there are no more signals being sent to help along the maturing process, and the hair isn’t given its dose of pigmentation. As a result, hair goes gray. Wow!
The research team conducted research on mice by physically speeding up the aging process by plucking strands of their hair again and again over the course of two years.
“It is the loss of chameleon-like function in melanocyte stem cells that may be responsible for graying and loss of hair color,” said study senior investigator Mayumi Ito, PhD, a professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology and Department of Cell Biology at NYU Langone Health.
“These findings suggest that melanocyte stem cell motility and reversible differentiation are key to keeping hair healthy and colored,” said Dr. Ito.
They found the number of McSCs lodged in the follicle bulge increased from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent during the two year period. However, in the younger hairs, which weren’t plucked, the McSCs continued to move around the different compartments, picking up protein signals and producing a rich brown pigment.
Though these new findings give new insight, it should be noted that there are several other factors to consider when hair goes gray. Previous studies have shown evidence that genetics and stress levels are also involved in the graying of hair as we get older.
Seventy-four percent of people between the ages of 45 and 65 years of age have at least some gray hairs (with an average of 27% gray) according to research from the National Institutes of Health. So, if you’re in that group and truly wish the grays would relent, researchers say that moving the McSCs to their proper location could prevent graying.
Though research is moving us toward helping to prevent gray hairs, is that actually something people, especially women, want to do? When men go gray, they are called salt-and-pepper silver foxes who we should be drooling over. When women go gray, they’re traditionally seen as bridge trolls.
However, several women in Hollywood (and around the world) are ready to buck this stereotype, especially in the wake of the pandemic, when millions of women decided to stop treating their hair during isolation.
Sex and the City actor Sarah Jessica Parker resented the notion that she was “brave” for letting her hair go gray.
“It became months and months of conversation about how brave I am for having gray hair,” she recalled in an interview with Glamour. “I was like, Please, please applaud someone else’s courage on something!”
Actor Andie MacDowell admitted that when she was younger, she actually wondered if gray hair suited her face better than darker hair. When the pandemic hit, she took the opportunity to try out her theory.
“When it started growing out during COVID I saw I was right … It looks good on me,” she said.
She went on to say that she both looks and feels better now.
“As it was growing out, my eyes popped, the color of them looked a little different. I liked the way my skin looked better,” MacDowell said. “And there was a feeling. It empowered me more. I felt more powerful and I felt more genuine and I felt more myself.”
They bottom line? Whether or not you like your gray hair (or your gray-haired future), you might have a choice down the road.