Why do gray hairs look and feel different?

Here’s a question that comes from our good friends over at Women’s Health Research News. If you get a chance, please go over and check out this great blog by a fellow indy science blogger.

Trisha’s question:

In a previous post you mentioned that gray hair looks gray because it has lost its melanin, which gives hair its pigment. What`s the biology involved with that? What actually causes hair to lose its melanin? And is there anything we can do to slow the process down? And why do my gray hairs seem more kinky and unruly compared to the rest of my hair?

The Left Brain’s Response:

Melanin is a pigment that is naturally produced in the hair follicle and “injected” into the hair fibers as the protein is formed and pushed out of the head. It’s the same kind of melanin that gives your skin its color. There are two basic types of melanin (eumelanin and pheomelanin) that are responsible for every hair color from brown and black to blonde and red.

No one knows why hair follicles stop producing melanin. Genetics mostly. There just gets to be a point where the melanocytes (the melanin producing cells) just stop producing. Thus you get gray hair.

Slowing the process? No one has figured this one out just yet. And the truth is that only the pharmaceutical companies would be looking for the solution anyway. Cosmetic companies focus on things that do not react with your body. I’m not sure if there will be a solution to this problem anytime soon. (By the way, there are products out there like Reminex that claim to restore melanin production but we’ve seen no data to indicate they really work.) Of course you can always dye your hair. Or you can use Verseo Greyban. (It’s not a dye. Not exactly.)

There is no solid data to show that gray hair has a different physical structure that makes it feel more kinky and unruly. In fact, we’ve seen experiments that show if you have people close their eyes they can not feel a difference between gray hair and “normal” hair. Why do people think gray hair is so different? There are probably two reasons: First, we know that as you age, the follicles produce less of their natural lubricating oils. That can make hair feel dry and coarse. Second, gray hairs are just easier to notice because of the color difference. Think about all the hairs on your head that are unruly but they are the same color as the rest of your hair so you don’t notice them.