Gray hair is kind of having a moment, with all the people letting their locks go au naturale during the pandemic. It’s not uncommon, and barely noteworthy, to see friends and colleagues on Zoom looking like off-color Billie Eilishes—heads that are half silver, half whatever shade is left from the salon days. For some, coloring hair seems less necessary now. Yet at the same time, the stress of the past year has science predicting a boom in cases of the grays. (Think Obama’s transformation but in a collapsed timeframe and reproduced around the world.)
But what if gray was on its way out? What if it no longer was shorthand for aging? What if you could do more than cover it temporarily with chemicals? What if you could actually biologically reverse the gray you have, restoring your natural color?
Seems almost like a dream, but thanks to another miracle of science, this could happen.
The Gray Hair Revolution
As you probably know, gray hair isn’t a color; it’s the lack of color in the hair shaft. Melissa Harris, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recently described the graying process this way to the Washington Post: “Our hair color depends on a set of specialized stem cells called melanocyte stem cells, and every time a new hair grows, these melanocyte stem cells have to divide in two and make a new melanocyte, [or] pigment cells. These pigment cells stay in the base of your hair and their job is to produce pigment. These melanocytes reach out skinny arms…that shuttle the pigment to the hair shaft as it grows. So if all your melanocyte stem cells disappear, so do your melanocytes and so does your hair pigment. Thus—gray hair.”
Therefore, these melanocyte stem cells are key to hair’s color (or lack there of). Several factors contribute to when and how fast your gray garden grows. Smoking, diet, disease, and genetics, for instance. Plus, that ubiquitous bugaboo, stress. Marie Antoniette is famous not just for her “let them eat cake” comment, but also for how quickly her tresses turned the color of shaved ice in the days before she was taken to the guillotine. A group of Harvard researchers recently discovered what was going on with the doomed queen and those of us who aren’t literally threatened with the chopping block, but land somewhere on the less violent end of the stress spectrum. When our nerves are activated as part of the fight-or-flight response, the stem cells in hair follicles can be damaged. And then it’s bye-bye to the blond, black or brunette pigment.
Beyond the Cover Up
Besides making a solid case for a yoga and meditation practice, this research about the importance of keeping the melanocyte stem cells happy suggests that there may be ways to turn back time (at least on your tresses). Harris and her colleagues recently published a report that describes a topical drug combination that increases melanocyte stem cells in gray mice, ridding them of their gray and restoring their original fur color—perhaps for good. (This is the only time when “mousy hair” could be considered a good thing.) Because the treatment—originally developed to regrow hair—replenished the all-important stem cells, the effects could be long-lasting.
“We didn’t keep the mice forever so we don’t know,” Harris told the Washington Post, regarding whether the change is permanent. “This has made us very interested in whether gray hair really is permanent, and if we can do something about it. We really want to know—and so does everyone else we talk to—is whether and when we can bring this to humans.”
It seems nurturing melanocyte stem cells could possibly prevent graying in the first place and reverse its march if it has already started to take over your head. Imagine the time and money to be saved if you don’t have to regularly park your behind in a colorist’s chair for hours. Gray liberation seems tantalizingly close.