It's a dreaded reality that we all start sprouting grays as we get older. But when I started noticing some wiry silver strands on my head in my early 20s, I had a minor meltdown. At first, I thought since I bleach the dark hair on my face (#browngirlproblems) that some strands on my head got caught in the mix. But as time went on, more gray hair appeared out of nowhere. And that's when I realized this was happening for real.
The good thing is, you're not alone. It's not too unusual to see a few whites in your 20s, says Doris Day, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University. Below, Dr. Day explains what causes hair to lose its color, why some people go gray in their 20s, and if there's anything you can do to slow it down.
1. Your hair turns gray when you stop producing pigment.
The pigment that gives your hair (and skin) its color is called melanin, and it gets released as the hair grows, Dr. Day explains. However, as we age melanin stops forming and hair begins losing its color. First, it starts turning gray and eventually turns white when melanin production stops completely.
2. Premature graying is almost always linked to genetics.
"Graying typically happens with age but it's highly variable," says Dr. Day. "There are people in their 90s and it still hasn't happened to them, but then there are people in their 20s who are experiencing gray hair already."
This often has to do with the way people age, which can happen in one of two ways: Intrinsically and extrinsically, Dr. Day explains. Intrinsic aging has to do with your genes. So if your mom and dad reached silver fox status early, it's likely you will too. That said, if you're going gray earlier than the rest of your family, there's a chance some extrinsic, lifestyle factors are coming into play, such as exposure to sunlight, and smoking....
3. Smoking can accelerate the graying process.
Yep, that nasty smoking habit really can be aging you beyond those mouth wrinkles. While smoking can't cause hair to gray, it can definitely speed up the inevitable. Smoking is toxic to every organ in the body, including the skin on your body and scalp, Dr. Day explains. "It deprives the skin of oxygen and may increase free radicals [toxic byproducts of oxygen that can cause significant damage to living cells] which can ultimately affect your hair by accelerating stress and aging of the follicles."
To support Dr. Day's point, there have also been several studies that have pointed to an association between smoking cigarettes and developing gray hair before the age of 30.
4. Stress or a life trauma can contribute to premature graying.
Like smoking, stress isn't a direct cause but an accelerator of everything that ages a person. "For some people, depending on their genetics, their first sign of aging is through their hair so those people are definitely going to see their hair turning white and even thinning," says Dr. Day. (Related: 7 Sneaky Causes of Hair Loss In Women)
There's a whole cascade of events that happen that can cause hair to gray because of stress, Dr. Day explains, most of which have to do with changes in cortisol aka "the stress hormone." When cortisol levels are high, it can affect and accelerate aging of the follicle, Dr. Day explains, which can eventually cause hair to gray.
5. In rare cases, gray hair could be caused by an autoimmune disease.
An autoimmune disease like alopecia areata causes your immune system to attack your hair follicles and prevent them from growing, and "sometimes, in rare conditions, when the hair grows back, it grows back white," Dr. Day explains. (Read about this badass bride who embraced her alopecia on her wedding day.)
Vitamin B-12 deficiencies caused by autoimmune diseases like autoimmune thyroiditis (aka Hashimoto's disease) have also been linked to premature graying. But Dr. Day notes that there isn't enough research to prove a clear cause and effect.
6. Plucking is the worst thing you can do to tackle your gray hair problem.
The best way to get rid of your decolored strands is to camouflage them—whether that's getting highlights or an all-around color. Plucking them, however, leads to a whole other set of problems. "I wouldn't pluck them out because there's a chance they might not grow back," says Dr. Day. "And since you're only going to get more, there's only so much you can pluck." And let's be real, we'd all take gray hair over bald spots any day.
7. Once you go gray, there's no turning back.
Unfortunately, there is no scientifically proven way to reverse graying hair. "People freak out about hair going gray because it makes them feel their mortality," says Dr. Day. But the best thing to do if it's happening to you prematurely is really just to embrace it. "Going gray is a gradual process—an opportunity to play," she says. "I always believe there is a way to look at it in a positive light. Just be thankful that you have hair that turns gray in the first place." Amen.
That said, there are a lot of preventative measures you can take to stop more gray hair from popping up. "The body, especially the skin and hair have a great ability to recover and regenerate," says Dr. Day. "Quitting smoking, for instance, does get you at least partway back to your normal path of aging." On top of that, making healthier lifestyle choices overall, and focusing on de-stressing can help slow down the aging process and keep you from prematurely reaching silver fox status.