I am 25 years old, and until a few months ago, I never had gray hair. I had platinum hair once per option, but no white strands occurring naturally. But recently, a few gray hairs popped into my head, and I took it as a not-so-subtle reminder that my youth was officially dead. Like any rational human being, I immediately became obsessed with these gray wanderers and wanted them not only to leave but to stop them growing at all. There is nothing wrong with being a silver fox-in fact, I know many people who enjoy the sophisticated look of a gray-haired gentleman-is something I would feel more comfortable embracing in a decade or two. And between the fear of getting gray and bald, is the last that really scares me.
So, instead of relying on the hypochondriac-inducing world of Google and Web MD, I decided to get a real-life dermatologist for some expert advice on going gray. Unfortunately, it turns out that even the world’s leading scientists know far less about why the hell our hair stops producing pigment than it thought. Which is a shame. But there was an idea that Dr. Evan Rieder, an assistant professor in Perelman’s Department of Dermatology at NYU, was able to tell me about the graying process and what scientists know about it. I’ve also been updated on the latest breakthroughs in hair replacement, if my biggest fear of hair-loss hair itself-ever becomes a reality.
GQ: Let’s start with the obvious: Why does hair turn gray?
Dr. Evan Rieder: There are two different cells in the skin. Keratinocytes and melanocytes, which make up the pigment. Melanocytes have two types of pigment, one called Eumelanin which is a dark pigment and one called Pheomelanin which is a light pigment. Those pigment cells in the skin end up transferring their pigment to the hair. Between the two types of pigment, they are mixed to create the range of colors that are seen in the hair. So if you think about gray hair, you basically have less melanin, and white hair has none. The thing is we are not exactly sure why this happens, but the general thought is that it is multifactorial.
Wait, the doctors do not know why we go gray?
Well, age certainly plays a role in this, but it is not a uniform process for everyone and it is not uniform for people across different races. So there are also genetic factors that play a role in this as well, which means that some people are just more predisposed to go gray. There are also some thought there are environmental factors such as stress, but that’s a bit controversial.
Why is it controversial?
My understanding is that the studies have been inconclusive. There was a study that came out a few years ago that said scientists had discovered that stress played a major role in gray, but a group of trichologists who are experts in hair said it was something fake. So there are probably many things that play a role, but the main things are age and genes. There was also a large review article about ten years ago that found that the first people to go gray on average were Caucasians, then Asians, and then Africans.
I saw an article that said scientists had located the specific gene that makes people gray and trying to see if they could somehow “turn it off.” Do you know much about that?
I saw a newspaper in Scientific American talking about it, but I do not think it was widely accepted.
Is there any way to delay the process of going gray?
Oh, but I do not think there’s anything out there. But does not GQ say that it’s smart to be a silver fox these days? Actually the only thing to do is dye your hair, but I would not recommend throwing them because you can do the trauma to the hair follicle.
Is there a link between gray and baldness?
I do not think there’s a connection. When you’re talking about gray hair, you’re talking about the loss of pigment in your hair. The balding process is the process of miniaturizing the hairs over time. There are what are called terminal hairs that are on the top of our head, and are made much smaller with time for some men. So it is not that the density of the hair becomes less, it is only that the thickness of the hair itself decreases.
Has there been scientific advances in the world of baldness treatment recently, and if so, which ones?
Some of these things are a bit controversial, but I usually tell people to start with Rogaine. It has been clinically proven to grow hair, and is generally well tolerated. The only thing is that you have to use it every day or the profits you have made will be lost over time. Most hair medications are lifelong medicines.
The only thing that can definitely stop the process is a hair transplant. There have also been discoveries that some medications originally intended to treat the prostate can actually stop the conversion of a couple of male sex hormones. It is called Propecia, although there are some side effects reported with it. The guys have been few and far between, but have reported under mood and some sexual side effects like decreased drive. Actually, there is a collective lawsuit going on right now, but I’m not sure it has any merit.
There has also been progress in hair transplants in what is called follicular unit extraction. They can take hairs from the back of the hair, and you can put them on the top of the head to give a more natural look. And now they can do it using a robot, which will do the extractions and place them back on the scalp. The last thing called platelet-rich plasma … have you heard of the facial vampire?
I do not have.
Kim Kardashian did it a couple of years ago. What happens is that you extract some blood, some of your own blood, and extract the growth factors in this serum. We have found that injecting this serum can help with a lot of different things. Kobe Bryant received injections into his knee to help replace the cartilage there, and Kim Kardashian got it for facial rejuvenation, diminished wrinkles, and the night out of the skin. So we have also seen that when injected into the scalp, it can actually regenerate the hair. We know that these growth factors are very important for hair to grow. It does not work for everyone, but it has been effective in many people. People also feel comfortable with it because it is their own growth factor of their body rather than some foreign substance.
Last question: Who are some of your gray hair icons?
A good friend of mine has gray hair but is not a style icon. Not yet. Let me see … oh Nick Wooster, he has gray hair, right? Yes, Nick Wooster.