As worrisome as it may seem to see a strand, or a section or more of gray gracing your locks, know this: It doesn’t have to be a bad sign.
Gray gets a bad rep in a world that’s looking to biohack our way to forever, but a reputation is all it is — and that can be changed. You can rock your grays like a rock star, dye them to wait until more arrive, or even take a closer look at your diet for potential nutritional gaps — because the truth is grays aren’t an overnight occurrence.
Before you rush off to embrace your grays, here are some things you should know.
1. Gray hair is actually different hair
Going gray is commonly explained as a loss of pigment (aka melanin) in the hair shaft. Typically, this hair has a different feel and texture than its pigmented counterparts. It’s been noted that gray hair is coarser, thinner, and “less manageable” — but there are products to help with this! Consider gray a new stage of life, one that you can learn to embrace in your own way.
2. Look to your family to see when graying occurs
There are many reasons people experience graying, but a lot of times it simply comes down to natural aging and genetics. This means that it just happens because it’s a commonality within your family genes. Check when your relatives or parents went gray and see if it matches with your timeline.
3. Your lifestyle could be why gray hairs are appearing
Environmental and nutritional factors may also be credited for graying, especially premature graying. “Stress, smoking, and an unbalanced diet are a number of the reasons why we may start experiencing premature graying,” explains nutritional expert for Maple Holistics, Caleb Backe.
But while stress is the most-cited reason, is it true?
When our body responds to stress, it often damages healthy cells. In one study, researchers found that, in mice, the response to stress damages DNA which accumulates over time. Although another mouse study has shown a link, there isn't any scientific evidence on humans that illustrates a direct correlation between stress and gray hair.
4. Smoking plays a huge role with graying
Smoking, on the other hand, has been found to have a significant relationship with developing gray hair before the age of 30, according to a 2013 study. This makes it one of the most relevant lifestyle causes.
Even if you don’t smoke, there’s secondhand smoke to consider:While secondhand smoke exposure has decreased, many people still experience secondhand smoke. In 2012, the CDC reported that 25 out of 100 nonsmokers had cotinine in their blood. When the body breaks down nicotine, it creates cotinine.
5. The wrong diet can also jump-start graying
Lack of certain nutrients has been found to play major roles in premature graying. According to one study, low ferritin, calcium, and vitamin D-3 all affect graying, while another study concluded that low copper, zinc, and iron advance premature graying.
6. By the time you’re 50, your hair may be 50 percent gray
Just like the reasons for graying, when a person starts to go gray depends on that individual. For instance, Caucasians are more likely to experience gray hair younger than Africans or Asians. With that being said, a 2006 study claims that by 50 years old, half of people have up to 50 percent grey hair.
7. Changing your lifestyle could reverse the gray
First things first, if you smoke, discuss with your doctor the best ways to stop. This obvious step could seriously push back the age you start graying. If you find the quitting process stressful, try replacing smoking with other activities. (And even though stress hasn’t been directly linked to graying, incorporating a bit of daily stress relief never hurt anyone.)
8. Walnuts, fish, and zinc could help with gray hair
Backe recommends adding certain foods to your diet to help supplement missing nutritional benefits. First, he suggests adding walnuts to your diet. “These are a great source of copper which helps to lend pigment to your hair follicles.” He also suggests adding fish, seeds, and leafy greens like kale and broccoli as sources of omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, “which are imperative for strengthening hair health and even restoring color.”
9. If your diet isn’t helping, go for vitamin B supplements
Chicken, when consumed in large amounts, can provide vitamin B-12 and B-6, which Backe explains has been shown to reduce the occurrence of gray hair. But if you’re not much of a meat-eater, supplements may help. “B-vitamin supplements help increase your body’s ability to prevent graying,” explains Backe. “Just be sure to balance out the rest of your diet with lots of roughage, leafy greens, and lots of water.”
10. Just because you’re going gray, doesn’t mean you have to dye it
“It is so frustrating when pesky gray roots suddenly appear and you don’t have time to get to the salon,” says founder of TRUHAIR, Chelsea Scott. When hair dye isn’t an option, or if you don’t have enough grays to rock the look just yet, Scott suggests simply parting your hair differently. “If you part your hair on the opposite side from your everyday part, there will be less regrowth on that side so you won’t see the gray.”
11. Makeup can help tackle surprising gray roots
You can also use temporary at-home coloring techniques to disguise roots. Mincho Pacheco, master hairstylist and colorist at James Joseph salon, recommends using a little bit of makeup to cover grays. “If you must cover them quickly, you can put a little makeup primer on the roots of your gray hair and then put some eyeshadow to cover the gray hair temporarily.” Scott also has TRUEHAIR Color & Lift with Thickening Fibers, which come in five different shades. “It lets you brush away the gray instantly,” she says.
12. For women, french braids and curls can also do wonders
Scott recommends using a big barrel curling iron to create waves. “Gray roots are always less noticeable on wavy hair,” she says. If you prefer your hair up, Pacheco suggests crossed and french braids that will also help hide grays (or enhance the look with weaves of color).
13. Going gray is beautiful and natural
When all is said and done, graying is a natural part of life and there isn’t any reason you should feel the need to hide it if you don’t want to. “Gray hair is beautiful,” says Pacheco. “What matters in the end is how you’ve taken advantage of the years that have passed.” If you fall into this category and just want to fully embrace the gray-hair life, visit your hair stylist and let them know! They’ll be able to provide great ways to fully elevate your look.
14. Maintaining gray hair isn’t the same process as before
“Keep in mind that it is key to keep hair looking bright, shiny, and healthy,” says Scott. “Gray hair tends to turn a dull yellowish color that can age you, so try keeping it shiny and bright.” You can do this by using toning, purple-colored shampoos. Popular options include Aveda’s Blue Malva Shampoo, Davines Alchemic Silver series, and Joico’s Color Endure Violet.
15. Gray hair stills needs SPF
Melanin helps protect hair against free radicals such as UV rays. Since gray hair is missing this pigment-making protein, it means it’s also much more susceptible to UV damage. A recent study points out that without this protection, the UV light melts the cortex, making the hair more brittle and damaged. So just like your skin, you need to protect gray hair against the sun. A simple way is by using a protectant spray like Rene Furterer Solaire Protective Summer Fluid.
Invest in hair care
But when it comes down to it, gray hair still holds similarities to colored hair. A cut can make or break your new ‘do. Pacheco advises keeping a haircut clean and fresh to help show off an enviable gray style. “Something layered, that gives life to the hair,” he says. “The objective is that the gray hair does not seem static and will add years to your look.”
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Know someone who may be experiencing a phase of gray hair? Let them know there’s more than one right way to gray.
Emily Rekstis is a New York City-based beauty and lifestyle writer who writes for many publications, including Greatist, Racked, and Self. If she’s not writing at her computer, you can probably find her watching a mob movie, eating a burger, or reading a NYC history book. See more of her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter.