Gray hair creeps up on you — sometimes literally. I was in my 30s, sporting a full beard, when I first noticed a few gray hairs appearing. Then there were more than just a few. It wasn’t long before the lumberjack image was beginning to give way to something closer to Old Father Time.
It wasn’t just the image that bothered me. It was the way I felt. Sure, gray hair is supposed to make men look distinguished. To give them gravitas. Look at Bill Clinton. Look at the baby-faced newsman Anderson Cooper, whose prematurely gray hair must have helped him land a job as a CNN anchor.
But gray hair can also make you look older than you feel — or are. “Gray hairs are like angels sent by the god of death,” according to the teachings of Buddha. Or, as Cooper quipped, “Translation: Gray is nature’s way of whispering, ‘You’re dying.’”
Off went the beard.
“Wow, you look a lot younger,” friends said — until gray hairs started sprouting up through the dark brown of my sideburns and then wending their way up into my temples. Salt-and-pepper, I told myself. A little gray can be sexy. Look at George Clooney. If he’s okay with turning gray, why should I fret? Why? Well, look at him. Clooney would look terrific sporting a Mohawk and wearing sackcloth. The increasingly gray-haired reflection staring back at me in the mirror, on the other hand…
It was time to do some investigating.
Causes of gray hair still a gray area
Gray hair may be one of the most common signs of aging, I discovered, but researchers still aren’t completely sure why it happens. One of the world’s leading experts on gray hair is Desmond Tobin, PhD, a researcher at the University of Bradford in England. When I contacted him, he graciously sent along a sheaf of scientific papers with titles like “Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmenting unit” and “Hair cycle and hair pigmentation: dynamic interactions and changes associated with aging.”
I dug in, encouraged to discover that science is taking gray hair so seriously.
The gist of what I learned is this: A shaft of hair is basically colorless. Cells in the follicle, called melanocytes, add pigment. The pigment, called melanin, comes in two basic varieties — eumelanin and phaeomelanin — which combine in different proportions to create the vast range of hair colors, from jet black to ash blonde. For a long time researchers assumed that, with age, melanocytes simply become less efficient at making pigment. That may be partly true. But recent studies at Harvard University have shown that age brings a steady decline in the number of these pigment-producing cells.
Contrary to popular belief, having kids or a stressful job won’t turn hair gray. But oxidation, the damaging effect of unstable oxygen molecules — which have been linked to many aspects of aging — may be one of the causes of gray hair. Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin reported in 2006 that the process of synthesizing melanin generates a slew of unstable oxygen molecules. When the Humboldt team exposed healthy and productive pigment-producing hair follicle cells to oxidation, the cells began to die off.
Of course heredity plays some role, since premature graying tends to run in families. And there are racial differences, too. Among white males, hair typically starts turning gray in the mid 30s, according to Tobin. In Asians, it begins in the late 30s, and in African-Americans, in the mid 40s. From then on, the chances of turning gray increase by 10 to 20% each decade. Tobin says, “A well-known rule of thumb in the field of graying hair is that by the age of 50, 50% of the population has 50% gray hairs.”
Coloring gray hair: Does he or doesn’t he?
Gray hair, alas, is all but inevitable for most men. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it. Drug store shelves are crowded with hair color products that promise to wash out the gray and restore hair to its youthful hue.
David Cannell, senior vice president of R&D at L’Oreal USA, one of the leading hair products manufacturers, offers some advice in navigating the bewildering number of choices. “For men’s products, there have been generally four categories,” Cannell says:
- Progressive coloring. The “Grecian Formula” approach uses lead acetate, which darkens with exposure to air. Hair is colored gradually, so you can stop when you’ve achieved the effect you want.
- Direct dyes. Made of colored molecules that coat hair, these are quick and easy to apply. The drawback: They typically wash away after only 6 to 10 shampoos. On the plus side, that means you don’t have to worry about gray roots. The dye is gone before they can show up.
- Semi-permanent color. Also called tone on tone, this uses peroxide to allow color molecules to enter the hair shaft, thus creating a more permanent color. These products usually take 5 to 15 minutes to apply and last about twice as long as direct dyes.
- Regular permanent color. This uses both peroxide and ammonia, which can lighten the natural pigment of hair, allowing men to select shades lighter than their original hair color. These products are also used to create highlights. The drawback: if you don’t like the color, you’re stuck with it until hair grows out — or you dye it over again, which can be tricky.
DIY vs. professional hair color treatments
When can you do it yourself — and when should you turn to a hair stylist? Off-the-shelf home hair coloring products are fine if you’re using color to blend or cover a little bit of gray, Cannell says. But if you have a lot of gray hair, you’re likely to get a better result going to a salon.
Even professional hair coloring, of course, isn’t forever. When the gray starts to show, you need to reapply color. This may be up to every four weeks if you’re pretty gray to begin with.
Is there a cure for gray hair?
Are colored molecules really the best that science can offer? What about basic research into the “gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmenting unit”? Can’t scientists do anything to stop us from going gray in the first place?
Someday, perhaps. “The decoding of the human genome has spurred much research into which genes are responsible for hair structure and coloration,” Cannell says. “By learning how the melanocytes are coded to produce pigment, it is conceivable that the process of graying could be halted or delayed.”
Conceivable. But not around the corner. For the foreseeable future, it seems, men’s hair color products now on the market are the only option. At least there are plenty to choose from, as I discovered on a recent visit to the local drug store — from shampoo-in coloring to brush-in gels and in shades from sandy-blonde to natural black. There are even products specifically for coloring sideburns or mustache with easy-to-use applicators.
Of course, there is another color option: graying gracefully. In fact, a growing number of men are doing just that. In a 2002 survey by Florida-based Experian Simmons Research, 5.8% of men reported coloring their hair at home. In 2006, that number had fallen to 4.8%. “Gray hair is a crown of glory,” one proverb says. Maybe the Clintons and Clooneys of the world have convinced more men to wear it proudly.
After puzzling over whether my natural hair color is light-medium brown or ash brown — not to mention whether to choose a cream or a gel — I’ll admit that I began to wonder whether it was worth all the trouble. Then again, if I could look like the guy on the box of Just for Men light-medium brown…