Can Stress Really Cause Gray Hair? New Research Gives Us the Answer
Despite what you may have heard, people with dark skin need to wear sunscreen, and shaving your hair won't make it grow back thicker. In Myth Busters, we debunk common beauty misconceptions and set the record straight.
In our humble opinion, all hair colors are beautiful. Whether you choose to wear your natural shade or experiment with hair dye, highlights, or even temporary color-depositing masks, there's often a tie between our natural hair (its color, style, texture, and more) and our identity. However, something about gray hair really gets people going. If you've ever spotted a stray gray strand on your head, you may have been shocked at the sight. Do you pluck it? Do you leave it? Do you cut it? Most alarmingly, where the heck did it come from?
You've probably heard your parents use the phrase "you're giving me gray hairs" at some point when you've stressed them out, but is there any truth to that statement? Does stress really cause gray hair? And if so, does finding a gray hair or two mean you need to splash out on more yoga classes and zen meditation sessions to reverse it? To answer these pressing questions, we did the research. Here's what we know about the link between stress and gray hair.
First things first: What causes gray hair?
"Gray hair is caused by the reduction [and] then a total elimination of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes inside the hair follicle," explains William Gaunitz, WTS, certified trichologist and founder of Advanced Trichology. The death or elimination of these cells can be caused by a number of factors, though most commonly they begin to die out naturally as we age. As these cells die off and leave the hair without any melanin for pigment, new hair strands grow lighter and eventually turn to shades of gray, silver, and white.
Can stress lead to gray hair?
Here's the simple answer: Yes, stress can definitely be a factor in hair going gray.
The findings of one 2020 study lead by Dr. Ya-Chieh Hsu of Harvard University make this very clear. The study used mice to examine the potential link between stress and hair graying, exposing them to various types of physical and psychological stress. The study's findings revealed that all of the mice exposed to stress had a noticeable loss of melanocyte stem cells and therefore more evident hair graying. The findings of the study also suggest that the same sympathetic nervous response that triggers our fight-or-flight response may heavily contribute to stress-induced graying.
Gaunitz confirms these findings by explaining that the overall impact of prolonged stress on the body—including chemical and pH changes—increases the destruction of the stem cells inside the hair follicle, eliminating the production of melanin.
However, while stress does play a role in hair graying, it is just one of many factors that contribute to the loss of hair pigment over time. For example, Gaunitz says that "anything that is relatively toxic to the liver, like medications or poor diet, can speed up this event in addition to factors such as genetics and even blood type."
Dr. Jennifer Wider, a women's health expert, also emphasizes that stress is just one contributor to gray hair. "There is evidence that stress hormones may play a role in altering the lifespan or activity of the pigment cells in our body—but it's a gradual process with other factors (like hair care, hair stress, and genetics) playing a role, too," she says. So, basically, stress isn't always entirely to blame.
If you're starting to notice more grays or are worried that stress could be speeding up the graying process, you might first want to assess both your lifestyle and your own genetics. According to Guantiz, "Genetics certainly seem to be linked to early-onset gray, typically because the way your body is capable of handling physical and emotional stress can be genetic." Having said that, note that if you're stressing out about grays just for the sake of stressing out, you may actually end up making the situation worse.