Hair. It comes in many colours (more with hair dye involved); it can be styled, shaped, cut and shaved. Some have lots, and some have very little, but we all have it. I wanted to find out why it turns grey and could new research have found a way to grow it again? I am going grey, and seemingly at a quickening rate. I’m only 25, and thought this was insane! Apparently not.
Firstly, what determines our hair colour? In the womb, melanocytes (i.e. a type of cell) dictate our hair colour, and migrate to the hair bulb (i.e. bottom of the hair) as the hair follicles are developing. By 22 weeks old, a foetus has all of its hair follicles; ~5 million of them across the body! Melanocytes produce the pigment which is used by the growing hair to produce its colour. Colour and shade will depend on the presence and ratio of two melanins: eumelanins (brown and black pigments) and pheomelanins (red and yellow pigments), which are determined by the genes we inherit from our parents. Hair colour varies dependent on where it is, for example, our eyelashes are darkest because they contain the most eumelanins. A red-tint is not uncommon in beards as this hair naturally has more pheomelanins. Women’s hair can even change colour during pregnancy as higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone can lighten hair (less eumelanins). It is not uncommon for blonde children’s hair to darken as they age, and although the exact mechanism is unknown, it is thought to be hormone related.
So what makes hair go grey, and is 25 years old a normal age to be going grey? Your hair does not “turn” grey. Our hair grows cyclically. It may grow for 3-4 years, reaching 60cm and then lie dormant for up to three months, resting before the cycle starts again. The melanocytes also turn off and on with the cycle. When they fail to turn back on for the next growth cycle, we get grey hairs as there is no pigment to give our usual colour. Naturally you produce less pigment as you age, so the change can appear gradually. If you pull out a grey hair, it’s just going to grow back grey so leave it be! How about age, when is normal to go grey? Research found that 74% of people aged between 45-65 years old have had ~27% of their hair greyed. Gender and ethnicity also play a role: men are more likely to go grey than women, and those from Asian or African backgrounds will go grey later than Caucasians who usually begin to go grey in their mid-30’s.
Unfortunately, this is another one for genetics. If your parents or grandparents went grey early, the likelihood is, you will too. The information is all there from birth, we can’t change it. So yes, there are general trends in the population but our genetics have it predetermined for us, so no panicking you silver vixen/fox! Embrace the “grombre”. How about hair loss? The cells in the bulb area divide faster than any other cell in the body, every 23-72 hours in fact, so it does not seem fair that in the US alone, more than 80 million men, women and children experience hair loss. There are many causes including genetics, ageing, childbirth, cancer, stress and anxiety to name but a few. However, new research has found a way to grow hair follicles from stem cells, replicating natural hair growth.
Growing hair from stem cells is not new. These magnificent cells can become anything within the body, but until now, scientists did not have much control over them. The US team lead by Dr Alexey Terskikh, associate professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California, developed a way to guide stem cells and grow them in a way which mimics natural hair growth. Current treatments can have unpleasant side effects and the price of a hair transplant can be anywhere between £1,000-£30,000! This research however, uses our unlimited supply of stem cells and grafts them onto a biodegradable scaffold, made of the same material as dissolvable stitches. So far, successful studies have only been conducted in mice and obviously, scaled up tests using humans are required before we hail this as a miracle cure to baldness or hair loss. Also, stem cells have to be “re-programmed” to grow as whichever cell you choose; this is still currently a costly process.
Whilst Boots and Superdrug (UK pharmacies) line their shelves with hair dyes filled with harmful chemicals, aided by the media, pushing me toward dying my prematurely greying hair, I plan on embracing it and going grombre. (For those who want some inspiration check out @Grombre on instagram). However, for those who suffer from hair loss, science and stem cells may be able to help, and maybe not that far in the future either!