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Gray Hair – The Final Frontier?

Gray hair, one of the biggest frontiers to be faced in life, and one of the last too. Many fear it and secretly peruse a rapidly-gained almost encyclopedic knowledge of hair colorants and rather inventive techniques to avoid being the proverbial ‘sore thumb’ sticking out in public. Perhaps it has to do with the fear of being seen as old; perhaps, more probable, it is the fear of accepting that it is the beginning of the end – and end that will come more sooner than later if the first half of life is anything to go by. But why gray hair? What is it and why can’t children get it?

Well, some children can get gray hair – perhaps not as often as among adults, but it happens. And if you want to find out the cause of gray hair, then you’d obviously have to look at why hair can be black, brown, red and blonde. The answer to this can be summed up in one word: pigmentation.

Eumelanin and pheomelanin are two types of pigment, the former existing as a color between black and brown and the latter between yellow and red-brown. Depending on your genetic makeup, you may either have a greater amount of eumelanin that is either browner or more black, or you may have more pheomelanin in any of its yellow to red-brown variations. Now, in terms of gray hair this doesn’t mean much, unless you take into account that these various forms of pigment are produced and stored in melanocytes which are made by stem cells which are located at the base of the hair follicles. Gray hair occurs when these stem cells die and can no longer produce the melanocytes which gave the hair its natural color – something which is predetermined by our genes.

But aside from aging, there are also other reasons for having gray hair, more often than not, prematurely. Most obviously, eating habits and smoking (tobacco products) top this list for the cause of gray hair. A deficiency in Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) which is used for cell metabolism is primarily to blame as far as eating habits go. Vitamin B12 is fairly abundant in most food sources which are derived from animals, which means that strict vegans are more susceptible and possibly their children too, seeing as this deficiency can be passed by a pregnant mother to her unborn child. Other factors that may lead to premature gray hair are a variety of thyroid disorders as well as menopause.

Regardless of the source of our gray hair agony, we as a public have over the years invested in billions of dollars worth of hair dyes and bleaches. Needless to say gray hair is seen as something unattractive for some; something that makes them feel old and affect their self-confidence. This is of course more true for women than for men. While in men a ‘salt-and-pepper’ appearance equals something akin to gravitas or physical dignity – something that says “I’m trustworthy and stable” – and might even turn a few heads, the same cannot be said for the members of the fairer sex who have gray hair, regardless of their age and appearance in other areas.