(Hair)

How To Prevent Premature Graying — Experts Say It Might Be Possible

Silvery hair is gorgeous but if you’re just not ready, here’s what you need to know.

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Gray hair has been linked to oxidative stress

Admittedly, I always had a fear of finding my first gray hair. Maybe it’s the way I’ve watched some of my family members go gray prematurely and stop at nothing to cover them, but I’ve always, wrongly, associated graying with “looking old.” At the ripe age of 30, I’ve now dealt with my fair share of silvery streaks, and after resorting to plucking them out (ouch?), I’ve finally decided to just let them be — but not without seeking other ways to slow the process down, first.

The reality is that going gray, like aging, is natural and inevitable, and for some, it can begin earlier than you might expect. In a world where words like “anti-aging” are still plastered all over beauty products, it’s understandable to freak out at the sight of your first stray gray, especially when it appears in your 20s or early 30s — but know that this is actually totally normal. In fact, while most people begin to gray between their mid-30s and 40s, it’s possible for others to start at just 20-years-old.

How you deal with your grays is entirely personal, whether you choose to embrace them full-on or cover them up. But for those, like me, who are looking to at least delay the process a bit, there are some preventative measures you can take. Studies have shown that lowering oxidative stress levels can be beneficial to those dealing with premature graying, and that doing so can help lower the rate at which new streaks crop up.

Does this mean that by changing your diet, popping supplements, and getting in some daily meditation, it’s actually possible to halt graying in its tracks? Four expert dermatologists and trichologists share their thoughts.

How To Prevent Gray Hair: What Causes Hair To Go Gray?

“There are a few main reasons hair turns gray — first and foremost, it is a result of aging,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green. “As we age, the enzymes which are involved in oxidative stress, such as catalase and MSR A and B, do not work as efficiently as they do when we’re young. Ultimately, this leads to the overproduction of hydrogen peroxide, which then leads to the inhibition of melanin synthesis. As a result, there is less pigment in the hair.”

Green points out that due to the fact that graying is almost always the result of natural aging, there’s no real way to completely prevent it. “However, under not so common circumstances, gray hair may be the result of some illnesses such as a vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid disorders, vitiligo, and alopecia areata,” she says. Additionally, NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Hadley King points out that, while the rate at which you age and therefore gray is largely determined by genetics (and looking into when your older family members started to go gray can be a good indicator), things like smoking, anemia, poor nutrition, and stress levels can also speed up the process.

“The process of graying is a multivariate equation and hypotheses abound,” says King. “It’s commonly thought that stress causes gray hair. Certainly stress cannot cause the hair to turn gray overnight, but it may accelerate the demise of melanocyte [cells that produce melanin, which pigments our hair] population. Stress hormones may impact the survival and/or activity of melanocytes, but no clear link has been established between stress and gray hair. They could cause inflammation that drives the production of free radicals, and it’s possible that these free radicals could influence melanin production.”

How To Prevent Gray Hair: Oxidative Stress & Graying

With the above in mind, can lowering oxidative stress levels through the factors you do have some control over help slow down graying? Trichologist Penny James of Penny James Salon thinks it’s possible, citing a 2020 study in which increased premature graying was not only linked to oxidative stress, but it was concluded that upping antioxidant intake is likely to yield some therapeutic benefits. But what’s the best way to approach this?

“Our bodies will naturally go under more oxidative stress as we age,” Green tells TZR. “To prevent any further oxidative stress, you can reduce your exposure to environmental stressors while limiting the consumption of foods that have higher rates of free radical production, such as red meats and grilled or charred foods.” She suggests instead opting for healthy fats, nuts, and avocados that are rich in vitamin E and vitamin C-rich foods such as berries, peppers, and citrus fruits.

In addition to nutrition and environmental factors, King says that avoiding smoking, treating any thyroid conditions, and managing your stress levels can help, citing a recent study that supports the idea that lowering stress can even reverse graying.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that most oxidative stress is inevitable. “Ultimately, these measures will not fully prevent the natural aging process of your hair, as oxidative stress occurs with natural aging,” says Green. “There’s nothing to be done to prevent the natural aging process, but lowering your oxidative stress may reduce any oxidative stress thereafter, potentially minimally reducing or slowing down the process in the long run.”

How To Prevent Gray Hair: Are Supplements the Answer?

In a product-obsessed world, it’s natural to wonder if there’s a magic pill or powder to take instead of, you know, putting in the work. Would it be helpful to up your intake of free radical-fighting antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals through oral supplements rather than simply relying on diet?

Opinions are mixed. While the study James cited concluded that supplements can be beneficial, King isn’t fully convinced. “In general, I would recommend a predominantly plant-based diet rich in antioxidants,” she says. “Studies about humans taking high doses or oral antioxidant supplements often end in increased morbidity and mortality, presumably because our bodies benefit in some ways from free radicals — our immune systems need free radicals to help kill cancer cells, for example. So, caution must be taken before translating these theoretical benefits to taking unproven supplements.”

However, James recommends two different supplements that may have promising effects: a vitamin B-complex and the amino acid L-tyrosine. “I do believe reducing our stress along with the intake of an L-tyrosine supplement and a vitamin B-complex can be of help and might stop more gray from appearing,” she says. “What these supplements will do is reduce the edema on the scalp along with reducing your internal stress levels. They’ll help keep your hair and scalp healthy along with improved blood flow and a much stronger, healthier hair bulb.”

She recommends the B Hair supplement by Hair Clinic (which can be ordered through her salon), since it also contains folic acid, biotin, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium in addition to B12 and B6. “All of these will nourish the hair root, increase density in the hair shaft, have a calming effect on your sympathetic nervous system along with boosting growth and preventing loss,” she says. Additionally, she recommends this B-Complex by Pure Encapsulations.

Hair wellness brand Arey recently launched its first product, Not Today, Grey, a daily supplement formulated with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and herbs to specifically address graying and delay the process, namely a powerful complex of B vitamins and the ancient herb fo-ti in addition to selenium, iron, and copper. While there’s no way to change genetics, the ingredients in Not Today, Grey work together to promote cell turnover, protect against free radicals, fuel melanin production, and improve the protein structure of the hair. Since they are so new, the experts couldn’t comment on whether or not they think taking these supplements would be an effective approach, but it’s an option worth exploring.

Conversely, Green isn’t so convinced that taking specific vitamins would prevent graying at all. “With graying hairs, the issue at hand is lower catalase (enzyme) activity,” she says. Like antioxidants, vitamin B5 can defend against the formation of free radicals, but isn’t necessarily linked to increasing catalase activity. “In other words, your hairs will still turn gray,” she says.

L-tyrosine, on the other hand, is an amino acid naturally found in the body that's responsible for melanin production. In addition to helping to regulate thyroid function, taking an L-tyrosine supplement is thought to enhance mood and improve cognitive function, which is why James recommends it for addressing premature graying. “Taking an L-tyrosine supplement will reduce any inflammation, help reduce stress, and has been proven to help with hair loss,” she says. She recommends trying this L-tyrosine supplement from Pure Encapsulations.

How To Prevent Gray Hair: Are Topical Options Worthwhile?

Most experts say that no topical treatments to stop graying exist, though NYC dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner believes that using shampoos containing zinc pyrithione may have some benefits. “Zinc pyrithione containing shampoos may have a variety of benefits for the scalp and the hair, as this ingredient has been shown in studies to provide antioxidant benefits and prevent UV light damage,” he says. These shampoos are typically used to treat dry and itchy scalps, dandruff, and conditions like seborrheic dermatitis. “They may help in addressing thinning hair, and while there is no good data to support this, I have my own theories that the use of these shampoos may minimize graying hair,” he says. So, while there are no guarantees, it’s another possible option to explore — just proceed with caution if you have color-treated hair, as this ingredient can potentially strip away dye.

How To Prevent Gray Hair: A Healthy Lifestyle

Ultimately, combating oxidative stress may help slow down the process of graying, but there’s no way to completely prevent it (it is genetic after all) — and not all the experts are convinced it would yield dramatic results. All agree that the best approach is a natural one: eating a nutritious diet, reducing stress levels (hello, exercise, meditation, and sleep!), and avoiding smoking and exposure to environmental stressors like pollution as much as possible.

While some supplements or topicals are available that *may* be beneficial, they shouldn’t be relied on as the sole solution. And, of course, if you do choose to go the supplement route, always consult with your doctor first and be sure to stick to the recommended dosage.

If you’re really concerned about your grays, it’s best to see a trichologist or dermatologist for other treatment, such as PRP (platelet rich plasma) treatment. “PRP is a great and effective way to stimulate the stem cells with our own growth factors, causing them to ‘wake up’ and grow,” says Green. “It will also ensure that all the right nutrients and sufficient blood flow is getting to the area, creating the perfect environment for catalase to function at its best, allowing the enzymes needed for hair color to work properly.” However, she points out that PRP should be seen as a preventative measure, as it would only have an effect on hair that still has pigment and has not already gone gray.

Other than that, you can turn to more temporary options for covering them with dye or makeup, or simply learn to love and embrace them. It’s inevitable that everyone’s hair will eventually go gray, and finding your first silvery streaks at a “younger” age is nothing to be ashamed of. Remember: With age comes wisdom, as well as wrinkles and grays, and that’s a reality that eventually everyone will have to face.