Does Stress Really Make Your Hair Turn Gray?

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People have been blaming stress for their gray hair for ages. Whether it’s from parenthood, a job, or the normal ups and downs of life – stress is often a factor many associate with their gray hair. We’ve all seen people in power, such as presidents, start their term with their natural hair color, only for it to make way for silver by the end of their term.

“The medical term for graying is canities,” trichologist Bridgette Hill, WTS, tells PS. “There is a growing curiosity in the science and medical community for study of the hair follicle,” she says. “Graying is the loss of melanin in the hair shaft. Melanin is the term used to describe natural pigments found in most organisms.”

Going gray is a part of the natural aging process for some, but can stress contribute to the early onset? To find out once and for all if there’s a connection, we tapped some experts. Ahead, trichologists help us understand if stress can really make your hair turn gray or if there are other factors at play here.

Does Stress Make Your Hair Gray?

In short, yes, stress can turn your hair gray – but not in the way you might think. Whether you’re dealing with acute stress, chronic stress, or even psychological stress, there’s a chance that it can be the cause of your graying hair.

“Hair that has already grown out of the follicle won’t change color due to stress or any other external factors,” board-certified trichologist Helen Reavey says. “However, oxidative stress can cause any new growth to come in ‘gray.’ Oxidative stress triggers the body’s production of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage cells, including those responsible for producing melanin in hair follicles.”

Hill explains that the gray coloring of a hair fiber is a result of some melanocyte activity (the cells that produce melanin), and the white coloring of a hair fiber is the complete absence of all melanin and melanocyte activity. As we age, hair follicles naturally begin to produce less melanin. This makes the hair grow translucent, without any pigment, appearing white.

According to healthcare education company StatPearls, when the body is under stress, the hormone cortisol is released throughout the body, even the hair follicles. Once inside the hair follicle, Hill says the stress hormone causes the melanocytes in the dermal papilla – which houses all the cells that determine hair’s characteristics, per the Journal of Dermatological Science – to die.

“The cortisol causes the melanocytes to replicate more rapidly into pigment cells, permanently killing off all the melanin-producing cells from the dermal papilla, creating a white or gray hair fiber formation,” Hill says.

It’s important to remember that going gray is a natural part of aging that everyone will likely go through eventually. If you’re noticing more grays accompanied by stress, making some life changes may be able to help.

Sydney Wingfield has been a freelance writer in the beauty and wellness space for six years. She has written for Women’s Health, Marie Claire, Glamour, and other publications and loves to cover all things skin care, makeup, and hair.

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