Now, I’m not talking about Gen Y women who choose to dye their hair grey, a la Rihanna in the photo. What I’m talking about is the scores of women in their mid-twenties whose hair is already starting to go grey by itself. According to a report published in the UK’s Daily Mail, nearly one-third (32%) of British women under the age of 30 have already begun to go grey, up from just 18% twenty years ago – and many experts believe that stress is the culprit for this worrying new phenomenon.
Nicola Clarke, creative colour director for John Frieda, is not at all surprised with the study’s findings. “In recent years, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in younger clients coming into the salon asking for colour to cover their grey,” Clarke said. “It’s not unusual for me to see a client aged 25 with grey hair, and frequently they do put it down to stress.”
Philip Kingsley, author of The Hair Bible, agrees that a stressful lifestyle plays a significant role in determining the age a person will be when they first begin to notice those dreaded grey hairs.
“We know that stress uses up vitamin B, and experiments with black rats deprived of B vitamins resulted in their hair going white,” he said. “Similarly, some studies in humans have shown that certain B vitamins taken in large doses can begin to reverse the process of greying.”
However, other experts have dismissed the idea of lifestyle factors such as stress being responsible for premature greying, saying that the onset of grey hair is determined simply by a person’s genes.
“The major risk factor for greying is age, with everyone succumbing with time,” said Nina Goad, of the British Association of Dermatologists.
“Earlier onset of greying is usually genetically determined, with little in the way of environmental relevance. For the majority of people, greying hair is not down to something you’ve done, but to genetic factors beyond your control. Generally, lifestyle does not greatly impact on when your hair loses its colour.”
Which begs the question: if the early onset of grey hair is, in fact, genetically determined, then why the sharp increase in the proportion of British women who are greying in their twenties? Is it possible that today’s young women’s fast-paced, city-based environments are actually affecting their DNA?
Yes, say researchers from Japan’s Kanazawa University. A 2009 study led by scientist Emi Nishimura found that hair follicles can suffer the same kind of “genotoxic stress” that does damage to a body’s DNA, effectively speeding up the ageing process of a person’s hair and causing them to go grey sooner than they otherwise would.
“The DNA in cells is under constant attack by damaging agents such as mutagenic chemicals, ultraviolet light and radiation,” Nishimura said. “It is estimated that a single cell in mammals can encounter approximately 100,000 DNA damaging events per day.”
So what can we do about it? Aside from maintaining a healthy diet (with lots of iron, protein, and B vitamins) and keeping our stress levels to a minimum, not much. But there is talk of a possible cure for early greying in the future, currently being researched by none other than beauty giant L’Oreal.
Apparently, L’Oreal’s scientists have discovered an enzyme that is present in the pigment-producing cells of skin (which, obviously, doesn’t lose its colour over time) but is notably absent in the pigment-producing cells of hair. If the effects of this particular enzyme can be mimicked, then within the next ten years or so we may be able to take a food supplement or use a shampoo that effectively stops prematurely greying hair in its tracks.
“The hair-whitening process is slow and progressive,” said Dr Bruno Bernard, head of hair biology at L’Oreal in Paris. “But this [research] has opened up an opportunity that I believe we can use to prevent hair whitening.”
Until then, our options are limited to either colouring over the greys like our older counterparts have been doing for decades, or defying our society’s obsession with youth by embracing our grey hair as a symbol of wisdom and life experience.