Whyyyy Am I Suddenly Getting Gray Hair in My 30s?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Welcome to Ask a Derm, a series from SELF in which board-certified dermatologists answer your pressing questions about skin, hair, and nail health. For this installment, we tapped Susan C. Taylor, MD, the Bernett L. Johnson Jr. Endowed Professor of Dermatology and the vice chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion for the department of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her specialties include hair loss, cosmetic dermatology, hyperpigmentation, and skin of color.

Your 30s are generally considered early adulthood, so if you’re hanging out in your third decade, minding your own business, and you suddenly start to see gray hairs popping up—a sign of becoming “old” and irrelevant in our serum-obsessed culture—you might freak out a little. But take a deep breath: We asked Susan C. Taylor, MD, professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, to explain the science behind going gray—including when it happens, how it happens, and why you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

Okay, so, yes, not only is there nothing wrong with going gray as a 30-something, but it’s actually quite normal. “Graying of the hair typically occurs in the mid-30s to mid-40s, depending on your ancestry,” Dr. Taylor says, adding that research shows white people typically start to see silver in their mid-30s, folks of Asian descent in their late 30s, and Black people in their mid-40s. (On the flip side, hair is said to gray ‘prematurely’ in those populations if it happens before the age of 20, 25, and 30, respectively, Dr. Taylor adds.)

Basically, as you get older, “your pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, start to lose their ability to make the yellow, brown, or black tint that gives hair its color,” Dr. Taylor explains. “In addition to that, you lose some of the melanocyte cells themselves.” The result: More silvery strands in the bathroom mirror. And we’re not necessarily talking about just a few here and there; Dr. Taylor says some people also start to see diffuse graying (so, all over their head) after the age of 30.

Other factors, aside from the natural aging process, can trigger hair to gray, too. Excessive alcohol use and smoking are biggies, Dr. Taylor notes. Both habits can lead to “oxidative stress”—meaning you have too many unstable molecules called “free radicals” in your body and not enough antioxidants to neutralize them—which may cause premature graying, research suggests. Genetics and certain chronic conditions, including autoimmune disorders like vitiligo, have also been linked with early grays, Dr. Taylor adds.

And in case you’re wondering if there’s anything you can do to regain your lost pigment: “In short, probably not,” according to Dr. Taylor. There is evidence that graying caused by protein-energy malnutrition (PEM)—which happens when the body doesn’t get enough protein or calories overall—can be reversed if this nutritional deficiency is addressed, she says. But PEM is rare in the United States and primarily affects children and older adults, she adds.

A lack of copper, iron, and vitamin B12 has also been linked with premature grays, but even if you’re low on these micronutrients (your primary care doctor can help you find out), there’s no solid evidence that increasing your levels will bring your color back, per Dr. Taylor. “Various vitamins and minerals, such as biotin, zinc, copper, and selenium are being prescribed for gray hair, but the results have not been promising,” she says.

That’s not bad news, though, because, turns out, having grays doesn’t actually make you less valuable. It makes you a normal, perfectly loveable human (just ask these silver-haired beauties). And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being—or looking—old either. It’s going to happen to the luckiest of us.

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