50 Shades Of Grey Hair: Why And What Causes Premature Greying

Here’s how you can slow the process down.

Aparrna Gupta

For the first time, grey glamour made heads turn at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival red carpet. Ever since the big debate on social media is whether to go grey or cover-up. Due to the pandemic, and regular salon services being dismissed, a lot of us, including our favourite celebs and influencers, made peace with the greys on their head. 

It’s no longer an ‘either-or stand where you have to pick sides but sporting grey hair and covering them is getting normalised. Geeta Rao, writer and ex-beauty director of a fashion magazine recently took a fun Instagram poll to explore the grey dilemma – to keep or to delete. “The Insta vote is for me to stay grey, so I will, but frankly I am not saying goodbye to dark mahogany and majirel 4.5 forever just for now,” she shares. 

Style coach and fashion influencer Aiana Jain also has no qualms about sporting her greys. “I started greying at 17 and we started a few home remedies. Soon after, I left home, and you know how it is once you are on your own. No one takes care of you like your mom. I made my peace with the greys early on.” She has never faced trolling for premature greys, and in fact, constantly receives messages on how she inspires a community to be comfortably glamorous. Beauty blogger Ankita Chaturvedi of Corallista, who shifted to London from Mumbai during the pandemic, also shares that she is now at ease with shooting her greys in her beauty videos as she is with experimenting with hair colour.

How to make the most of grey hair?

While we reach out for lotions and oils to counter premature greying, the real and most effective answer lies in our genes and the pantry. Research also shows that vitamin B-12 deficiencies are often concurrent with folic acid and biotin deficiencies in people with premature greying of hair. 

If like me, premature greying runs in your DNA then you can delay it, but not prevent it. Instead of putting rice water, crushed petals, and soaking my head in methi-infused oils, I realised that surrendering to a colourist is less messy and more effective. But this is only when the premature greying is due to genetic coding. I used hibiscus oil for the longest time and ate all my greens, seeds, and nuts, which I believe, delayed my greys. My mom spotted her first grey strands in her mid- 20s. I got a grace time of five years and saw my first grey strands in my 30s. Without much ado, I took to basic root touch-ups. I included Olaplex-- a multi-step, hair strengthening treatment that re-builds disulfide bonds within the hair that are broken by colouring the hair--in most of my colour services as that helps retain the strength and integrity of hair without compromising on the colour result. I have not lost hair or encountered texture changes due to colouring.  Let’s start with the basics though. 

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Model and cookbook author, Chrissy Teigen is known to embrace all things natural. In 2018, in a Tweet, the celebrity, in her inimitable style, acknowledged her grey hair. She said: “I have a skunk-like streak of grey hair and I’m actually very into it. My Cruella dreams are coming true!”

What’s premature greying?

Much like it sounds, premature greying is greying of hair at a very young age. “Hair starts greying when you enter your mid-30s or even later. But if you see grey hair during your teenage years or early 20s, it clearly indicates that you have a premature greying issue. Genetics plays a major role in your hair pigmentation. Usually, most people get their hair pigmentation from their families. It is the same case with premature greying. If your family has a history of early hair greying, you are more likely to have premature grey hair. Other factors such as autoimmune disorders, vitamin B-12 deficiency, stress, and smoking habits, can cause premature hair greying,” says Dr Kaustav Guha, head - R&D, SkinKraft Labs. 

“Our parents' and grandparents' generations, who lived a different lifestyle didn't see greys until their 30s, some even forties. However, now, we see premature greying among all ages. According to the International Journal Of Tricology, PHG or premature hair greying is used when it occurs before the age of 20 in whites, 25 in Asians, and 30 in Africans,” says Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, dermatologist founder ISAAC Luxe. 

Let’s talk about hair colour

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Registered dietitian Fatema Valikarimwala explains that the colour of human hair is due to the pigment melanin produced by melanocytes. Human hair follicles contain two types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Every individual has a variation in the colour of hair which arises mostly from the quantity and ratio of eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin has two subtypes of black or brown, which determines the darkness of the hair colour and pheomelanin imparts our hair the orange and reddish tinge.

Hair colour is also determined by diet

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“Your body requires vitamin B-12 and iron for healthy red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the cells in your body, including hair cells. Deficiency in either of the vitamins can weaken hair cells and affect melanin production. About 55 per cent of patients suffering from anaemia fall prey to premature greying before the age of 50. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal sources, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. However, it is generally not present in plant foods. As far as dietary iron is concerned, Heme iron is better absorbed in the body than nonheme iron. The richest sources of heme iron, derived from haemoglobin, include organ meat, lean meat, and seafood, and sources of nonheme iron include garden cress seeds, beans, green leafy vegetables, and fortified grain products,” Valikarimwala adds.

If you are looking to avoid premature greying, it’s important to note that shellfish, oysters, meat, and seeds and nuts, wheat-bran cereals, whole-grain products, and chocolate, are the richest sources of copper. “Copper is another important mineral as it not only plays a role in melanin production but also helps your body metabolise iron and create new blood cells,” says Valikarimwala. She has observed that thyroid hormones, namely, T3 and T4 can act directly on hair follicles to increase melanin production. Research has proven that decreased production of thyroid hormones can also cause premature greying, changes in hair texture and to an extent can also result in alopecia.

What should you do when you see your first few grey hair? 

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Keep a cool head and do not try to pluck out the grey. Your reaction should also depend on the age at which you spot the greys. “If it's after 25 it's normal. However, if you're concerned, you can do a thorough blood analysis to rule out any deficiencies. There have been studies, even amongst Indians that show that a deficiency in calcium, ferritin, zinc, Vitamin B12, even copper can cause premature greying. It may be useful to get these tests done and make sure you take the full support of diet and supplements to correct this. Zinc, B12 and calcium are some of the most common deficiencies these days,” says Dr Gupta. 

It is difficult to stop early greying due to genetics, however, when it is linked to nutritional deficiency and lifestyle factors you can definitely gain control over it. For treating greying of hair, it is important to reduce oxidative stress, according to Dr Madhuri Agarwal, founder and medical director, Yavana Aesthetics Clinic. This means that there aren’t enough antioxidants in your diet to counter the free radical damage in your body. To address this, be conscious of what’s on your plate. Make sure your diet includes a mix of colourful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Dermat-approved ways to treat premature greying

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Dr Gupta suggests a holistic approach to hair care that includes a good haircare routine, meditation to counter daily stress, and a healthy diet with whole foods and supplements. “However, you can always try Indian DIYs with bhringraj or amla to give a boost to the scalp,” she adds.

According to Dr Agarwal some of the premature greying treatments include Tab PABA, calcium pantothenate, Melitane lotion, Latanoprost serum. “However, they are hardly any studies backing them and the effects are temporary and last only as long as you use them. Shampoos with antioxidants like green tea, selenium, copper are prescribed but they are not in contact with the scalp long enough to give results. Stop pulling grey hair. Quit Smoking. Scientists hypothesise that smoking may prematurely grey hair through oxidative stress on the hair follicles,” says Dr Agarwal.

A colourist tells all

So, we have established that premature greying is directly related to one’s lifestyle and genetics and to deal with premature greying one needs to reset the gut and balanced intake of minerals and vitamins, including Biotin. One should meditate and exercise as well. "These can slow down the appearance of new ones but are not going to darken the ones which have already grey. You can choose to let the grey be, but if they bother you every time you look at the mirror, consider colouring the roots with semi-permanent ammonia-free colour, so it can camouflage and blend with natural hair, says Sunil Sharma, style director, Jean Claude Biguine Spa and Salon, Bandra. His advice is to select the colours closer to the natural base to maintain the natural look. “We have lots of colouring techniques which can help you cover as well camouflage the greys. One can try global colour or highlights or balayage depending on the percentage of greys and individual personal needs. Baby lights, a hair colouring technique similar to balayage and highlighting, are strategically placed to blend naturally with your base colour around the crown area are also a quick way to blend the greys with natural hair,” Sharma adds. 

“It is a common myth among many people that coloring gives you more greys.  Greying is an inward process that usually happens because of depletion in melanin, lifestyle disorders, lack of vitamins and minerals, hereditary, and stress. The primary use here is for hair colour and hair shine. Most professional coloring choices available today in Indian markets are backed by strong R&D and contain optimum patented conditioning agents in their colour and developers. In fact, the permanent damage caused is by the excessive use of pre-lightening products and colouring without good aftercare,” adds Sharma.

Can Greying Be Reversed?

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If your grey hair is due to genetics or old age, unfortunately, it cannot be reversed. However, if the issue lies in your diet, pollution, nutrition, hair care, and stress, then the greying can be slowed down. “If the grey hair is due to an autoimmune disease or thyroid, getting the right treatment will help. In the case of genetics and other factors like stress or smoking habits, derma-approved supplements like vitamin B-12, keratin, iron, folic acid, and biotin can help with premature hair greying,” says Dr Guha.
 

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