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Premature Graying: Reasons, Options

Experts explain why some of us are destined to sport the 'distinguished' look at an early age.

By Daphne Sashin

Reviewed by Emmy M. Graber, MD

WebMD Feature

Salt and pepper, silver, pewter, charcoal. Whatever you call it, gray hair happens to all of us at some point. But why do some people go gray in their 20s while others don’t see the first sign of silver until age 50? If you’re going gray early, what are your options?

woman looking in mirror

What’s 'Premature'

Hair goes gray when color-producing cells stop producing pigment, says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. Naturally occurring hydrogen peroxide can also build up in the hair, bleaching the color.

Typically, white people start going gray in their mid-30s, Asians in their late 30s, and African-Americans in their mid-40s. Half of all people have a significant amount of gray hair by the time they turn 50.

A white person is considered to be prematurely gray if his or her hair turns gray by age 20; gray before 30 is early for African-Americans.

Medical Problem?

Going gray, by itself, does not mean you have a medical problem, except in rare cases.

Contrary to popular belief, stress has not been shown to cause gray hair. Scientists don’t know exactly why some people go gray early, but genes play a large role.

Also, a vitamin B-12 deficiency or problems with your pituitary or thyroid gland can cause premature graying that’s reversible if the problem is corrected, Benabio says.

Some research has suggested a connection between premature graying and lower bone density later in life. But in 2007, a study of about 1,200 California men and women showed no such link.

"Your level of bone density is related to activity level, your weight, your height, your ethnicity. It’s not related to your hair or the things controlling the color of your hair," says researcher Deborah J. Morton, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego.

Hiding the Gray

There are lots of choices for concealing gray, says Ron King, owner of Ron King Salon and bô Salon in Austin, Texas, and a national spokesman for L'Oréal Professionnel. They include:

  • Semi-permanent or demi-permanent color: The color lasts a few weeks and is a good option for people just starting to see gray according to King. "If you have a lot of your natural colors running through, you don’t want to take that away," King says. "You can just blend it without disrupting what you already have that’s already beautiful and natural."
  • Highlights: Scattered strands are lightened to blend the gray with the rest of your hair.
  • Permanent color: King suggests using it once you have 45% to 50% gray. Some clients leave some gray around their face to make a statement.
  • Hair products: If you don’t want to dye but still want to conceal the gray, King suggests a coloring tool such as spray-on airbrush hair makeup, which washes out with a shampoo.

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