I’ve started noticing one or two of them every few weeks, usually when I’m out to dinner and pop in to look in the bathroom mirror under an overhead light. I’ve never thought too much about going grey, but it is starting to dawn on me that it’s gonna happen.
Whether you’re totally into rocking grey hair, or plan to dye till the day you die, grey hair is something most of us think about as we start to realize we’re actually getting older. But why do some people go grey quicker than others- and is there any way to slow the greying down?
Maybe We're Born with It
In a weird way, all of our hair is actually grey, but it's just covered up with pigment. Our bodies only produce a certain number of pigment cells. These pigment cells make melanin, which is what gives our hair its color (and also does the same for our skin). As we age our body simply produces less pigment, which leaves our hair grey.
The Grey Gene
Though there are certain environmental factors that can increase grey hair -don’t smoke!- it’s mainly dictated by your genetics. Some people are just genetically predisposed to grey at an earlier age, while some never go grey at all.
But until very recently, scientist weren’t sure exactly which genes were responsible for grey hair. Then, in 2016, University College London conducted a study with 6000 people, all from different ethnicities. This is important because until then, studies had only been conducted on people of European descent, which makes the data inconclusive.
Scientists were able to identify IRF4 as the gene responsible for grey hair. This gene is involved with melanin storage and production. But in terms of practical applications for this knowledge, scientists were still at a loss.
The Special Cell
And then, this past year, researchers from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center identified the cells that cause our grey hair.
First they identified a protein, KROX20, that turns on in cells that become our hair shaft. When KTOX20 turns on, it triggers production of another protein called Stem Cell Factor. When the scientist removed SCF from cells in mice, their hair turned white, which led them to realize that SCF is vital for creating the pigment in our hair. (And when they removed the KROX20 protein, the mice went bald)!
The Cure for Grey?
So what does this all mean? While there are a lot of studies left to be done- mice are very different from people- we’re closer than ever before to finding a cure for grey hair. If scientists can figure out how to trigger production of SCF, we may actually be able to control how fast our hair turns grey, if ever.
Or course, if you’re one of those dapper folks who rocks their grey, than you’re already set. As for me? For now, I've decided to stall, and just avoid overhead lit mirrors.