Can your hair turn gray overnight?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

This column was first published in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How not to fuck your facewhich you can subscribe to on Substack.

The world may seem like a precarious place, but there’s good news about how worrying about it can affect your appearance.

Q: Is it possible to turn gray practically overnight?

A: The short answer: No. The long answer: You know how the older you get, the faster time seems to pass? I thought that although it may take several years for your hair to turn gray, it may seem like it happened overnight. Dermatologist and hair magician Hadley King confirms that true overnight transformation is highly unlikely.

To get to the root of the problem: “Hair follicles contain melanocytes, cells that produce a pigment called melanin,” she explains. “As we age, melanin production decreases, so hair, losing its pigment, turns gray and eventually white.”

The age at which these changes occur is largely determined by genetics, King says. But the slowing rate of melanin production and resulting graying can be accelerated by factors such as smoking, anemia, poor diet, low levels of B vitamins, or an untreated thyroid condition.

What about stress? Trauma? A sudden catapult into the black hole of existential terror? “Stress hormones can’t turn hair gray overnight,” King says. Although they may be a factor in the survival and/or activity of the melanocyte population, no clear link has been well established between stress and gray hair. One theory is that stress hormones could cause the inflammation that leads to the production of free radicals; it is possible that these free radicals influence the production of melanin. But we need more data, says King. There is a mouse study, supporting the idea that compromised antioxidant activities in the roots of graying hair contribute to the destruction of melanocytes in the hair follicle.

But if you think it’s a good idea to counter compromised antioxidant activity with antioxidant supplements, King wants you to think again. “Studies of humans taking high doses of oral antioxidant supplements often result in increased morbidity and mortality, likely because our bodies somehow benefit from free radicals – our immune system needs free radicals to help kill cancer cells, for example,” she explains. (Seventy-eight randomized trials with 296,707 participants were performed. The increased risk of mortality was associated with beta-carotene and possibly vitamins E and A, but not vitamin C or selenium. Current evidence do not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population or in patients with various diseases.) So be careful about translating theoretical benefits into taking unproven supplements.

Which brings me to the curiosity of our second reader.

Q: I spent a wad on Arey supplements. They promise to ward off my graying dark brown hair, which is my lifeblood. Seeing my hair lose its will to produce pigment makes me feel like a coward (when flirting with waiters, for example). What should I know about the products I put in my body?

A: Are you saying people with gray hair shouldn’t flirt with waiters? There are a few silver foxes among us who might challenge your position.
When it comes to Arey supplements (similar to Vegamour supplements), King knows about them and points out that there isn’t much data to back up their claims about slowing the aging process. However, one of the company’s product ingredients, palmitoyl tetrapeptide 20 amide, has been shown in small studies to preserve follicular melanocyte function and promote hair pigmentation (i.e. slowing loss of melanin).

Still, there are two issues that put me off: I think you have to keep taking the supplements for them to work, so you’re basically on an endless subscription. And as is the case with most magical products or devices, THE the less they have to do, the better they work.

Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, Oprah’s magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now she writes the weekly newsletter How not to fuck your face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the realm of beauty from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn to be loving witnesses to ourselves and each other as we age.

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