Many people are choosing to embrace life as it develops—gray hair and all. There are many reasons for letting your hair go gray, such as, it’s easier to eliminate the touch-ups that need to happen every four to six weeks, it’s cheaper, it’s trendy, and it’s simply gorgeous. Whatever the reason, I’ll share some tips on how to care for your gray hair.
Gray hair is prevalent in almost every age segment, including young people, as early as in their 20s. Genetics plays a significant part in when and how much your hair will gray. Additional factors that can cause hair to gray early include health conditions such as thyroid disease, viruses, and smoking.
Ever wonder why your gray hair is wiry and sticks up stubbornly? It is because the cuticles of gray hair are rougher and drier than hair that has pigment. To put it simply, graying is caused by less concentration of melanin.
Gray hairs have a different chemical make-up compared to black or pigmented hairs and thus require a special care regimen for styling and manageability.
The Science Behind Gray Hair
Melanin is the natural pigment in our skin and hair and is responsible for our skin and hair color. There are two types of melanin; Eumelanin and Pheomelanin, both imparting different coloring shades. Melanin synthesis takes place in specialized cells called “melanocytes” via a complex organic chemical reaction catalyzed by enzymes. The concentration of melanin grains, their location, and the activity of melanocytes define the actual hair color, and this is where “graying” begins. The process of hair graying is not clearly understood. In some studies, hair follicles have been observed to lack the essential tyrosinase enzyme for the vital melanocyte activity, which slows down melanin synthesis. In other words, there is less concentration of melanin produced from melanocytes.
However, what leads to a decrease in follicular activity is not clear. Certain studies have reported that even gray unpigmented hairs have some level of active, alive melanocytes present, yet hairs are gray. It is believed that graying might be due to multiple factors, such as a drop in melanin level, a decreased production of essential enzyme impacting melanogenesis activity, or a combination of both. The result is white-gray hair.
Are Gray Hairs Different?
Grey hairs are visually different because of the difference in color. Scientific studies have also discussed the structural, morphological, and textural changes induced by hair graying. Gray hairs are coarse compared to the same pigmented hair, which means they are rough and present more friction during their wet and dry combing. With age, hair loses density, shine, pigment, and the oil glands in the scalp will produce less sebum and is thus more fragile and sensitive to the sun’s rays. Gray hairs can also get damaged easily by the high energy radiations as they show higher levels for cystic acid following irradiation.
The biological process that affects the color of the hair likely also affects the structure of the hair being produced, however, it is unclear why. White and gray hair are also more likely to oxidize, looking yellow and tarnished.
Gray hairs have almost the same levels of proteins, and amino acids, with the only observed difference being the concentration level of cystine. Gray hairs showed higher amounts of cystine oxidation, producing more cystic acid. What does that mean? This indicates that gray hairs are more porous and hydrophilic; meaning they have more capacity and ability to absorb moisture and are thus more vulnerable to changes in humidity of the surrounding environment.
Gray Hair also reacts differently with chemical agents. For example, gray hair generally has higher dye uptake (semi-permanent or permanent) during hair coloring treatments. They respond strongly during chemical and texturizing treatments (reduction during thioglycolates). This is potentially due to the higher level of porosity and surface roughness, facilitating the penetration of active chemicals.
These studies reveal that gray hairs are different. They are weak, more porous, and get damaged more easily, compared to pigmented hairs; therefore, they require special attention and care.
Role of Melanin in Altering Hair Texture
Gray hairs have less melanin (almost no melanin present). How could just melanin be responsible for textural changes and surface damage to gray hair?
Melanin is a large aromatic polymer; besides adding color to hair fibers, they provide essential protection against solar radiation. Melanin protects hair fibers from undesired chemical changes that can be extremely damaging for the quality of hair, style, and sheen.
Gray hair lacks this natural protection mechanism due to the lack of melanin grains. This leaves gray hair exposed to radiations, which result in oxidation of hair proteins.
How to Care for Gray Hair
Cleansing . Due to the different textural and surface properties, gray hairs require moderately conditioning cleansing products. Sulfate shampoos are not suitable for them. Using sulfates may further deepen the damaging sequence, and hair can eventually break. A combination of mild and more natural surfactants is ideal. You also want to make sure your daily (or go-to) shampoo is hydrating and full of antioxidants to keep those grays looking bright and fresh. If you find that your shampoo is too stripping, switch to a co-wash or cleansing conditioner, as it is much more moisturizing, which keeps the hair from getting too dry.
Avoid Build-up. Less is always more. Gray hair can strongly uptake chemicals agents, as well as conditioners. Gray hairs have more space at the cuticles, and thus, conditioner molecules will penetrate quickly and in higher amounts. More product applied means more molecules of conditioner are available at the penetration site of cuticles. Damaged hairs are known for this same type of problem, and get “build-up” very quickly. As a result, hairs become limp and dull-looking.
Styling. Once you’ve gone gray, styling hair can become a little more difficult because of the texture changes. If you are air drying, it won’t make much of a difference, but if you are trying to smooth hairs down, it will require more moisture. The focus of gray hair care is to keep it very moisturized from roots to ends. This will keep it soft and shiny.
If you have finer hair and want it to look bouncy and healthy, stay away from ultra-thick or thick serums and creams because they can make your hair look flat, and weigh it down, unless, of course, that’s the look you’re going for. Instead, try a light anti-frizz shine spray or light oil to keep things locked down and smooth.
If you’re rocking the gray, to make sure it stays bright and healthy-looking, a great way to do this is to receive a clear gloss every three to four months. This will brighten the grays, and keep any other unwanted tones at bay. Talk with a professional colorist about this.
Given that gray hair tends to be a bit drier, it’s necessary to add moisture to your hair care routine, through a deep conditioner, a shampoo, or your styling products. Purple shampoos will help to cancel out any yellow tones, keeping your grays on the cool/white side.
Permanent coloring is usually the preferred choice to cover gray hair. Following coloring, these hairs require specially formulated color protection products to improve color vibrancy and retention. Bleaching treatment “Highlights” is another option to cover or mask gray hair.
Whether you decide to embrace your grays or cover them up, just know you’ve got options.