10 Head-Scratching Facts About Gray Hair


Whether it’s no big deal or a perplexing affront to your vanity, gray hair is a fact of life—and still a bit of a mystery.

1. How Hair Turns Gray

Hair grows in a follicle, a bulb-like tube on your scalp. The average head has 100,000 to 150,000 follicles, each operating independently from the others. Hair in its basic, unpigmented state is white. It gets its color from melanin, a pigment that also determines skin color. Two types of melanin, eumelanin (dark brown or black) and phaeomelanin (reddish yellow), combine to make all the hair colors. One hypothesis for why hair goes gray is that aging slows or stops the hair from accessing the melanin, so it comes out gray, silver, or white instead.

2. Hair May Bleach Itself From The Inside Out

New research reveals that graying may be from a build-up of hydrogen peroxide in the hair cell, which causes the hair to bleach itself on the inside. Cells naturally have a small amount of hydrogen peroxide in them, but it’s kept in check by an enzyme called catalase, which converts the hydrogen peroxide to oxygen and water. As we age, the body produces less catalase, so the hydrogen peroxide builds up and, according to the New York Times, blocks “the normal synthesis of melanin, the natural pigment in hair.” Thus the hair turns gray, giving new meaning to the phrase “peroxide blonde.”

3. Graying Is Caused By Heredity

When you’re born, your genes are already hardwired for when and how your hair will turn gray. This includes premature graying—people who gray before age 30 usually do so because it runs in the family. For most of us, graying starts in middle age. Dermatologists go by the 50/50/50 rule of thumb: by age 50, half the population will have at least 50 percent gray hair—although a worldwide survey showed that number was much lower, with only 6 to 23 percent of people half gray by age 50.

4. Race Is Also A Factor

In a related matter, race also determines when you’re likely to gray. In general, Caucasians gray in their mid-30s, Asians in their late-30s, and African Americans in their 40s.

5. Plucking One Gray Hair Will Not Cause Three To Grow In Its Place

This old wives’ tale is a myth. Each follicle can contain only one hair, and plucking it won’t make it able to produce multiple hairs. Furthermore, what you do to one follicle has no effect on the ones around it. That said, excessive plucking isn’t a good idea—it can damage the follicles and even stop hair production in that area altogether.

6. Stress Probably Plays A Role In Graying

When President Obama went gray his first term in office, was it stress, age, or a combination of both? Scientists aren’t sure. While some researchers say that your genes alone are responsible for gray hair, others say that there seems to be a connection between graying and stress, just no direct link to prove it. In 2011, a study by Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz discovered that long-term productions of the body’s fight or flight response—the instinctive ability to mobilize energy in response to a threatening situation—can damage your DNA and cause premature aging, including graying hair.

7. Trauma Won’t Make You Go Gray Overnight

Another myth is that a major shock will cause your hair to suddenly turn gray. This is sometimes called the Marie Antoinette Syndrome because the French queen’s hair supposedly turned white the night before she was beheaded. But hair, once grown, doesn’t change color, so waking up with a head of white hair isn’t going to happen. Although there is a very rare condition where all of the colored hairs can fall out, leaving only white hairs behind, the simpler answer is that Marie Antoinette probably just took off her wig.

8. Smoking May Cause You To Prematurely Gray

Multiple studies have linked smoking with premature aging, which includes early graying. In 2013, a study found that there is a significant relationship between smoking and gray hair in people under 30. In fact, “smokers were two and half times more prone to develop PHG” or premature hair graying.

9. Body Hair Also Turns Gray

All your body hair—chest, nose, pubic, etc.—can turn gray. Body hair tends to gray at a different rate than the hair on your head, which is why some men can have gray beards and brown hair, or visa versa. By the way, dyeing gray pubic hair is a thing. 

10. Someday, Research May Lead To A Gray Hair Cure

Scientists in Europe discovered a breakthrough with vitiligo, a disease where skin loses pigment and develops white patches. Like hair, vitiligo is caused by “massive oxidative stress via accumulation of hydrogen peroxide,” causing the skin to bleach itself from the inside out. Researchers have successfully treated the discolored skin and eyelashes of vitiligo patients, which has led some to predict a potential cure for gray hair. But while the idea sounds promising, history is full of tonics and creams claiming to cure gray hair. As far as we know, none of them have worked yet.

You Can Sip Coffee and Play Games While This Helmet Scans Your Brain

Brain scanning is a delicate operation, one that typically involves staying very still. Researchers use imaging techniques like magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging to get an idea of how the brain functions and what neurons are being activated, but it's not an easy task. Current scanners are huge, requiring patients to sit unmoving inside them, lest their head movements mess up the data. There may soon be a better way—one that would allow patients to act normally while still getting reliable data.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK report in Nature that they've developed a prototype brain scanner that can be worn like a helmet, one that can generate reliable data even if the subject moves.

It uses lightweight quantum magnetic-field sensors held against the scalp by a 3D-printed helmet that's custom-made for the patient. For the study, one of the researchers volunteered to be the patient and was fitted with a white plastic helmet that looks kind of like a cross between a Roman Centurion helmet and a Jason Voorhees Halloween mask. She was positioned between two large panels equipped with electromagnetic coils that cancel out the Earth's magnetic field so that it doesn't interfere with the magnetic data picked up from the brain. As long as the patient stayed between the panels, she was free to move—nod her head, stretch, drink coffee, and bounce a ball with a paddle—all while the scanner picked up data about on par with what a traditional scanner (seen below) might gather.

A man sits inside an MEG scanner.

The more flexible scanning system is exciting for a number of reasons, including that it would allow squirmy children to have their brains scanned easily. Since patients can move around, it could measure brain function in more natural situations, while they're moving or socializing, and allow patients with neurodegenerative or developmental disorders to get MEG scans.

The current helmet is just a prototype, and the researchers want to eventually build a more generic design that doesn't require custom fitting.

Emery Smith
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The 'Alien' Mummy Is of Course Human—And Yet, Still Unusual
Emery Smith
Emery Smith

Ata has never been an alien, but she's always been an enigma. Discovered in 2003 in a leather pouch near an abandoned mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert, the tiny, 6-inch mummy's unusual features—including a narrow, sloped head, angled eyes, missing ribs, and oddly dense bones—had both the “It's aliens!” crowd and paleopathologists intrigued. Now, a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and UC-San Francisco has completed a deep genomic analysis that reveals why Ata looks as she does.

As they lay out in a paper published this week in Genome Research, the researchers found a host of genetic mutations that doomed the fetus—some of which have never been seen before.

Stanford professor of microbiology and immunology Garry Nolan first analyzed Ata back in 2012; the mummy had been purchased by a Spanish businessman and studied by a doctor named Steven Greer, who made her a star of his UFO/ET conspiracy movie Sirius. Nolan was also given a sample of her bone marrow; his DNA analysis confirmed she was, of course, human. But Nolan's study, published in the journal Science, also found something very odd: Though she was just 6 inches long when she died—a typical size for a midterm fetus—her bones appeared to be 6 to 8 years old. This did not lead Nolan to hypothesize an alien origin for Ata, but to infer that she may have had a rare bone disorder.

The current analysis confirmed that interpretation. The researchers found 40 mutations in several genes that govern bone development; these mutations have been linked to "diseases of small stature, rib anomalies, cranial malformations, premature joint fusion, and osteochondrodysplasia (also known as skeletal dysplasia)," they write. The latter is commonly known as dwarfism. Some of these mutations are linked to conditions including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and Kabuki syndrome, which causes a range of physical deformities and cognitive issues. Other mutations known to cause disease had never before been associated with bone growth or developmental disorders until being discovered in Ata.

scientist measures the the 6-inch-long mummy called Ata, which is not an alien
Emery Smith

"Given the size of the specimen and the severity of the mutations … it seems likely the specimen was a pre-term birth," they write. "While we can only speculate as to the cause for multiple mutations in Ata's genome, the specimen was found in La Noria, one of the Atacama Desert's many abandoned nitrate mining towns, which suggests a possible role for prenatal nitrate exposure leading to DNA damage."

Though the researchers haven't identified the exact age of Ata's remains, they're estimated to be less than 500 years old (and potentially as young as 40 years old). Genomic analysis also confirms that Ata is very much not only an Earthling, but a local; her DNA is a nearest match to three individuals from the Chilote people of Chile.

In a press statement, study co-lead Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at UC-San Francisco, stressed the potential applications of the study to genetic disorders. "For me, what really came of this study was the idea that we shouldn't stop investigating when we find one gene that might explain a symptom. It could be multiple things going wrong, and it's worth getting a full explanation, especially as we head closer and closer to gene therapy," Butte said. "We could presumably one day fix some of these disorders."