Children born with some hair colors may find it gradually darkens as they grow. Many blond, light brown, or red haired infants experience this. This is caused by genes being turned on and off during early childhood and puberty.
A 41-year-old man with minimal gray hair
Changes in hair color typically occur naturally as people age, eventually turning the hair gray and then white. This is called achromotrichia. Achromotrichia normally begins in the early to mid-twenties in men and late twenties in women. More than 60 percent of Americans have some gray hair by age 40. The age at which graying begins seems almost entirely due to genetics. Sometimes people are born with gray hair because they inherit the trait.
The order in which graying happens is usually: nose hair, hair on the head, beard, body hair, eyebrows.
In non-balding individuals, hair may grow faster once it turns gray. Unlike in the skin where pigment production is continuous, melanogenesis in the hair is closely associated with stages of the hair cycle. Hair is actively pigmented in the anagen phase and is “turned off” during the catagen phase, and absent during telogen. Thus, a single hair cannot be white on the root side, and colored on the terminal side.
The same man at age 56, with fully-gray hair
Several genes appear to be responsible for the process of graying. Bcl2 and Bcl-w were the first two discovered, then in 2016, the IRF4 (interferon regulatory factor 4) gene was announced after a study of 6,000 people living in five Latin American countries. However, it found that environmental factors controlled about 70% of cases of hair graying.
The change in hair color occurs when melanin ceases to be produced in the hair root and new hairs grow in without pigment. The stem cells at the base of hair follicles produce melanocytes, the cells that produce and store pigment in hair and skin. The death of the melanocyte stem cells causes the onset of graying. It remains unclear why the stem cells of one hair follicle may fail to activate well over a decade before those in adjacent follicles less than a millimeter apart.
Graying of hair may be triggered by the accumulation of hydrogen peroxide and abnormally low levels of the enzyme catalase, which breaks down hydrogen peroxide and relieves oxidative stress in patients suffering from vitiligo. Since vitiligo can cause eyelashes to turn white, the same process is believed to be involved in hair on the head (and elsewhere) due to aging.[unreliable source?]
The anti-cancer drug imatinib has recently been shown to reverse the graying process. However, it is expensive and has potentially severe and deadly side effects, so it is not practical to use to alter a person’s hair color. Nevertheless, if the mechanism of action of imatinib on melanocyte stem cells can be discovered, it is possible that a safer and less expensive substitute drug might someday be developed. It is not yet known whether imatinib has an effect on catalase, or if its reversal of the graying process is due to something else.
Anecdotes report that stress, both chronic and acute, may induce achromotrichia earlier in individuals than it otherwise would have. Proponents point to survivors of disasters, such as Titanic survivor Harold Bride, or high-level politicians such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. There is some evidence for chronic stress causing premature achromotrichia, but no definite link has been established. It is known that the stress hormone cortisol accumulates in human hair over time, but whether this has any effect on hair color has not yet been resolved.
Albinism is a genetic abnormality in which little or no pigment is found in human hair, eyes, and skin. The hair is often white or pale blond. However, it can be red, darker blond, light brown, or rarely, even dark brown.
Vitiligo is a patchy loss of hair and skin color that may occur as the result of an auto-immune disease. In a preliminary 2013 study, researchers treated the buildup of hydrogen peroxide which causes this with a light-activated pseudo-catalase. This produced significant media coverage that further investigation may someday lead to a general non-dye treatment for grey hair.
Malnutrition is also known to cause hair to become lighter, thinner, and more brittle. Dark hair may turn reddish or blondish due to the decreased production of melanin. The condition is reversible with proper nutrition.
Werner syndrome and pernicious anemia can also cause premature graying.
A 2005 uncontrolled study demonstrated that people 50–70 years of age with dark eyebrows but gray hair are significantly more likely to have type II diabetes than those with both gray eyebrows and hair.