One look at the before-and-after photos of U.S. presidents, and one can appreciate the cautionary tale of what the most stressful job in the world will do to your hair. Though few of us will ever endure that level of stress, it's hard to not blame our workday worries for that new gray hair that just popped up. But is excessive freaking-out really the culprit? We decided to take a closer look at the old wives' tale that pinpoints stress as the cause of gray hair.
In this week's edition of Beauty Myths, we turned to Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Clinic in New York City, as well as Sandra Gilman, trichologist and educational director for The Elan Center for Trichology in Alabama, to help us get to the bottom of this widely believed theory.
"Stress is more likely to cause hair loss and an increase in shedding than cause gray or white hair," Cunnane Phillips tells us.
"Gray hair is largely influenced by genetics and a complex series of cell chemistries." Gilman agrees that "the majority of gray hair is genetic, but if the person is predisposed to gray hair, stress will make it appear sooner."
She adds that hair pigmentation can be disrupted due to certain factors. "As the hair grows out of the follicle, various processes take place in a timely fashion to produce a shaft of hair with the correct color (genetically speaking). One of these processes involves the melanin-producing cells that are present and whose job it is to provide color to the hair during the hair-growth cycle. During this cycle, anything that interrupts the flow of events can cause the non-pigmentation of the hair shaft."
So what constitutes a stressful event, and why do we notice gray hairs following these periods? "These stress events can include surgery, head trauma, nutritional deficiencies, such as zinc deficiency or any other stress that the body perceives as a burden," says Gilman.
That includes physical, mental and emotional stress, she clarified. To that end, Cunnane Phillips adds, "There has been debate over the relationship between the lack of vitamin B [and the presence of gray hair], and low vitamin B can be influenced by stress. Though it is largely predetermined, the onset and progression of hair graying correlates closely with chronological aging: The age at which our first gray appears is genetically controlled and inherited."
Is that predetermined age the reason why some see gray hair before others? "The darker the hair color of the individual, the more noticeable the grays," says Cunnane Phillips. But let's circle back to the rapid, 'right before our eyes' graying of our presidents: What's the explanation there? "There can be a coincidence factor at play," says Cunnane Phillips. "For example, when we see the presidents appear to gray, they are at the age when that would happen, regardless of what job they held. But it is hard to completely rule out the connection. As with many things it can be driven by several variables simultaneously."
As far as where we see those first rogue hairs, Cunnane Phillips notes that "graying typically appears at the temples, and spreads slowly from front to back." But all is not totally lost when you see that first gray -- there's a chance it might have been a fluke and could grow back with color. "There are situations where there can be spontaneous re-pigmentation, and this is more likely to be seen in the early stages of graying."
Conclusion: The graying of hair is thought to be brought on by predetermined factors due to genetics. Stress typically manifests in hair loss or shedding, though it can result in premature depigmentation in those who have a predisposition to gray hair.