It’s not uncommon to get gray hair as we age, but of course humans want to reverse any sort of natural phenomenon the human body goes through that hints at our mortality. As such, there are products designed to stop those gray hairs from happening ― some supplements promise to prevent gray hair from coming in in the first place, while other topicals claim to reverse the gray. Even L’Oreal found reason to pursue the subject, announcing in 2011 that an all-natural pill would be out within five years that could prevent gray hair. (A rep from L’Oreal shared that it is no longer a focus area for their research and innovations team).
But as that abandoned project might hint at, the reality of preventing and reversing gray hair isn’t as simple as popping a pill—at least not yet.
While the mechanisms behind hair color are complicated, in the simplest terms, gray hair is caused by the loss of pigmentation. As we age, we produce less hair pigmentation, which results in gray hair. For the most part, when exactly this occurs seems to be genetically determined.
But there are some reasons gray hair may sprout sooner. Craig Ziering, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Ziering Medical, says that vitamin deficiencies, specifically of vitamin B6, B12, D, E or biotin, can accelerate the growth of gray hair. Oxidative stress from both internal factors (like an unhealthy diet) and the environment (like UV radiation) might play a role, too. Smoking has a significant effect: “Studies have shown that smokers are two times more likely to start graying before age 30 as non-smokers,” Ziering said.
Even hair products — including those used to color or bleach hair — can include ingredients that decrease the melanin in hair. “Hydrogen peroxide, which is in many hair dyes, is one such harmful chemical. Excessive use of products that bleach hair will also eventually cause it to turn white,” Ziering said.
Stress, too, seems to be a factor — think of the oft-mentioned comparison of presidents in their first year versus their last.
Keeping hair from going gray is big business — just take a look at the range of products available claiming to act as a gray hair treatment. But according to the experts we spoke with, the ability to reverse gray hair or prevent age-related color changes isn’t possible. “While certain nutrient deficits and health conditions may spawn premature gray hairs, it’s impossible to restore your natural hair color if your grays are genetic or due to natural aging,” Ziering said.
There’s reason to stay hopeful, though, if less gray hair is your goal. While most of what we know about gray hair says that once a hair is gray there is no going back, one study found that reducing stress just might help (easier said than done, right?). Researchers found that in some subjects, previously gray hairs repigmented after subjects went on vacation. The study has its limitations, but it illustrates for the first time that stress — and the reduction of it — actually can impact hair color.
“We can’t fully stop our hairs from going gray,” said Martin Picard, a researcher at Columbia University and author of the study. “This study shows that aging is malleable ― it is not a fixed, predetermined process we are doomed to experience in the same way no matter what we do. Our behavior, and perhaps how we learn to see the world and the stress we create for ourselves, seem to influence how our cells age, and when our hairs will eventually go gray.”
Besides reducing stress, there are some other tactics that might reduce the development of new grays — but only if lifestyle or nutritional deficiencies are the cause.
“Certain vitamins and minerals help ensure that your hair follicles have the maximum nutritional value to perform the metabolic functions in the bulb, one of which is production of the pigments (melanin) that the hair needs to retain its natural color,” Ziering shared. “Amino acids and proteins that trigger metabolic function in our follicles are beneficial,” he said. With that in mind, eating foods with the aforementioned vitamins can help, as can consuming antioxidants can counteract the effects of oxidative stress, like fresh fruits, green tea, olive oil, and fish.
“Eat well, sleep well, work against environmental stressors and avoid smoking,” Ziering suggested. “Use sun protection for hair and scalp. Boost calcium, protein, and B vitamins.”
As for those supplements claiming to prevent gray hair, technically they may work if they are making up for nutritional deficiencies, but no more than eating a healthy diet or taking a general multivitamin might.
Currently, treatments are being tested that have shown to reverse graying and repigment hair. “These agents include enzymes such as catalase which breaks down hydrogen peroxide, known to accumulate in the dermis of graying hair, so there may be treatment and prevention in the future,” Ziering said. “Looking ahead, this may someday be the foundation of a treatment which will reverse the exhaustion of the pigmentary potential of the melanocytes of hair bulbs,” he said.
“Not today and not tomorrow, but in the near future we may potentially unearth a ‘Benjamin Button’ effect resulting in restoration of richer, more youthful hair color for the 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond,” he added.
Picard is continuing to study gray hair as well. “I think we’ll learn more about the influence of the mind on the body. How our human experiences become embedded in our biology — in our hairs,” Picard said. “The mind and body are connected, and this shows us even in hairs!”
In the meantime, there is always the option to embrace the gray, which it turns out is the most stress-free method of all.