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Premature greying: Reasons, options

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Salt and pepper, silver, pewter, charcoal. Whatever you call it, grey hair happens to all of us at some point. But why do some people go grey in their 20s, while others don’t see the first sign of silver until the age of 50? If you’re going grey early, what should you do about it?

We look at the science behind premature greying, possible health concerns, and tips for every stage of the process.

What’s 'premature'?

Hair goes grey when colour-producing cells stop producing pigment. Naturally occurring hydrogen peroxide can also build up in the hair, bleaching the colour.

Typically, white people start going grey in their mid-30s, Asian people in their late 30s, and black people in their mid-40s. Half of all people have a significant amount of grey hair by the time they turn 50.

A white person is considered to be prematurely grey if his or her hair turns grey by age 20; going grey before 30 is early for black people.

Medical problem?

Contrary to popular belief, stress has not been definitively shown to cause grey hair. Scientists don’t know exactly why some people go grey early, but it’s largely determined by genetics.

Some autoimmune and genetic conditions are associated with premature greying, including vitiligo, Werner syndrome and alopecia areata - which causes only the coloured hairs to fall out and look like the hair turned white overnight.

A vitamin B12 deficiency or problems with the pituitary or thyroid gland can cause premature greying that’s reversible if the problem is corrected.

Some research had suggested a connection between premature greying and lower bone density later in life. However, later research found this not to be the case.

Hiding the grey

There are lots of choices for concealing grey. They include:

  • Semi-permanent or demi-permanent colour: lasts a few weeks and is a good option for people just starting to see grey.
  • If you have a lot of your natural colours running through, you can just blend it without disrupting what you already have that’s already beautiful and natural.
  • Highlights: Scattered strands are lightened to blend the grey with the rest of your hair.
  • Once your hair is 45 to 50% grey, consider using permanent colour. However, some people leave some grey around their face to make a statement.
  • Hair products: If you don’t want to dye but still want to conceal the grey, consider a colouring tool such as spray-on airbrush hair makeup, which washes out with a shampoo.

Embracing the grey

The myth that grey hair makes you old is just that - a myth. If you were young, vibrant, active, healthy pre-grey, you're still going to be that way. It's all in the attitude you bring to it. If you think of it as merely another colour choice, you won't be afraid of grey.

Men like Philip Schofield or George Lamb have gone grey early and embraced the look.

These simple tips can help you go grey with style:

  • If you’ve been dyeing hair, consider going "cold turkey" with a chic, short haircut.
  • Work with a colourist to weave in highlights and use toners to minimise the transition line between your natural hair colour and your former hair dye.
  • Consider a more up to date haircut.
  • Take care of your hair with appropriate products.
  • Use straighteners to make your hair look sleeker and shinier. Grey hair tends to get frizzy, and straightening can bring back the lustre.
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Reviewed on September 13, 2017

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