5 Ways to Prevent Gray Hair, According to Experts
From Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda to George Clooney and Anderson Cooper, many people look distinguished with and embrace their gray hair. And many more, celebrities or otherwise, were forced to do so during the pandemic when salons shut down and it was challenging or impossible to keep up with professional touch-ups.
But what if there was another way to get around gray hair—if you're not so fond of it, that is—rather than dyeing it back to be closer to your original hue? Researchers are learning that it might be possible to prevent or even reverse gray hair through healthy lifestyle habits.
Why Hair Goes Gray
As each strand grows, all hair goes through a cycle of regeneration then death, and the cycle continues again and again throughout the lifespan as long as your hair follicles remain active. (If they flip "off" and go dormant, that's when balding occurs.) As hair follicles encounter stressors and age, they can begin to produce less color each phase. Our genes partially determine when we begin to gray. In fact, the Library of Congress says our chance of going gray, on average, increases 10% to 20% every decade after age 30.
Hair is all initially white, and as it is produced, the body adds natural color in the form of melanin. There are two types of hair pigments:
- Dark (eumelanin)
- Light (phaeomelanin)
These combine to make the many hair hues you see on yourself and others, say, strawberry blonde, golden brown or black.
As hair grows from its follicle, melanocytes add pigment via melanin into the hair cells that contain keratin, the protein that makes up hair, nails and skin. Researchers believe the body has a "melanogenic clock" that can slow down or halt this melanocyte activity. This "clock" is controlled by our DNA, but it can be adjusted based on what the environment throws your way.
"It's a natural, age-related process whereby the cells that produce pigment start to die off, leaving fewer and fewer to add color to the hair strand, eventually causing the hair to have no color at all, therefore gray," explains Ted Lain, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
Related: The Best Foods for Healthy Aging
5 Ways to Prevent Gray Hair, According to Experts
While the genetic aspect of our hair-graying process is out of our hands (thanks, Mom and Dad), a few simple lifestyle shifts can help you hold on to your hued hair longer, experts say.
"A healthy diet and lifestyle is not only good for your overall well-being, but also for your skin and hair health," Lain says.
Study up on scientifically proven strategies to prevent or slow the graying process.
Squelch the stress.
"New research suggests that depigmentation, or graying, of hair is triggered by stress—and likely inflammation from stress," says Julie Upton, RD, co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco.
A 2020 study in the International Journal of Trichology found that oxidative stress (an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals in the body that can trigger cell and tissue damage and accelerated aging) is linked to premature graying.
Smoking is a key factor in the oxidative stress equation, and is correlated with premature graying in all age groups. (The CDC has a wide variety of smoking cessation resources to help jump-start the process, if you or a loved one could use some help kicking the habit.)
Over time, chronic stress of any kind can lead to chronic inflammation, which may flip off those melanin-making cells while shortening the hair growth cycle, according to a 2018 Annals of Dermatology study.
While it's never a quick fix to stress less, incorporating these 7 science-backed ways to relieve stress in 10 minutes or less early and often can be a great place to start.
Adjust your diet.
On a related note, what you eat can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory, Upton explains.
"Eating a diet that can help tamp down inflammation may help protect the cells responsible for your hair's pigment. A diet that is rich in added sugars, processed foods and saturated fat is known to be pro-inflammatory," she says. "A plant-based eating plan that's low in added sugar and light on high-fat animal proteins is considered anti-inflammatory."
With that in mind, Upton suggests that her inflammation-savvy clients eat more antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, which "can help neutralize the reactions that negatively impact the cells that are responsible for maintaining the pigment in your hair follicles," she says.
Some of the best options include:
- Dark, leafy greens
- Red grapes or red wine (in moderation)
- Fresh herbs and spices
If possible, limit these pro-inflammatory foods and drinks:
- Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Commercial baked goods
- Processed, high-fat meats like bacon, sausage and salami
This anti-inflammatory meal plan for beginners can help you learn the ropes.
Get enough of these vitamins and minerals.
Certain vitamin and mineral shortfalls can also contribute, Lain explains: "Ensure you have an adequate level of Vitamin D3 and Vitamin B12, since deficiencies in either of these may accelerate graying."
Other important micronutrients for healthy hair include vitamin E, vitamin A, zinc, iron, copper, selenium and magnesium.
While supplements can fill in the gaps, we're strong believers that food can be the best Rx. The best sources of these healthy hair nutrients include:
- Vitamin D: trout, salmon, mushrooms, milk, eggs
- Vitamin B12: beef liver, clams, tuna, nutritional yeast, salmon
- Vitamin E: sunflower seeds and oil, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, spinach
- Vitamin A: beef liver, sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, ricotta cheese, cantaloupe
- Zinc: oysters, beef chuck roast, crab, lobster, pork loin, baked beans
- Iron: beef, dark leafy greens, fortified cereals, oysters, white beans, dark chocolate, lentils
- Copper: beef liver, oysters, unsweetened chocolate, potatoes, shiitake mushrooms
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, sardines, shrimp
- Magnesium: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews
Protect your locks from the elements.
Beyond internal impacts, what your hair faces externally matters too, Lain says. So, he says, "Follow healthy hair habits. Try to avoid repetitive use of heat and chemical treatments which can damage the hair and the pigment cells. Limit exposure to, or protect hair from, toxins and pollutants, and when possible, protect your hair from the sun by covering it up with a hat or scarf."
Banning bleaches, using a wide-toothed comb (rather than a brush, especially on wet hair), limiting high-heat styling tools and washing less frequently can all help your hair stay stronger longer.
Keep up with your check-ups.
Some autoimmune and thyroid-related disorders can be related to premature graying, a 2018 International Journal of Trichology study confirms. Be sure to keep up with your yearly physicals and check in with our primary care doctor if anything feels "off" internally, or book an appointment with your dermatologist if you notice any big changes in the vitality of your skin or hair.