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Understanding Hair Yellowing: Causes and How to Prevent It

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Table of Contents

Hair yellowing - causes and prevention

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Are you noticing yellowing in your hair? You’re not alone, as many people face this issue, regardless of hair type. However, the degree of yellowing can vary.

So, what causes hair yellowing, and more importantly, how can you prevent it?

Hair yellowing is a common occurrence, especially as we age. While some color loss is natural over time, there are several factors that can make the yellowing more noticeable. Exposure to sunlight and cigarette smoke are known culprits, and certain medications and medical conditions can also contribute to yellowing.

Thankfully, with the expertise of my friend, a hair science specialist with a PhD in Chemistry, we can explore effective methods to prevent or reduce hair yellowing. Now, let’s take a look at some scientific details about hair yellowing, its causes, and how to prevent and fix the problem.

Understanding the Yellowing of Bleached Hair

Over time, bleached hair that has been treated with hydrogen peroxide can develop a yellowish tint. The process of hair bleaching involves breaking down melanin, the natural pigment in hair fibers.

A combination of hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, and bleach boosters is applied to the hair, leading to the degradation of melanin and resulting in lighter hair color.

The level of bleaching depends on the concentration of hydrogen peroxide used (typically referred to as 10 VOL, 20 VOL, 30 VOL, or 40 VOL) and the pH level of the bleaching mixture. Higher concentrations of hydrogen peroxide can turn hair blond or silver in color.1,2,3

Blond hair is particularly sensitive to damage from excessive use of alkaline hydrogen peroxide, requiring special care following the chemical treatment. Additionally, blondes may notice a yellowish tint developing in their hair color after a few days or weeks.

Causes of Blonde Hair Turning Yellow

Pinterest pin titled "Hair Yellowing Causes & Solutions."

Hair bleaching is a chemical treatment that alters the natural color of your hair. However, excessive use of alkaline bleach treatments can result in almost complete removal of melanin from bleached hair fibers.

Melanin serves as a natural antioxidant that plays a crucial role in protecting hair proteins from external aggressions and damage.4 Scientific studies have identified multiple factors that contribute to inducing hair yellowing.

Sun Exposure

Solar radiation encompasses a wide spectrum of energy and wavelengths, with ultraviolet (UV) and visible radiation being the most common types that reach Earth.

UV radiation, in particular, has the potential to inflict damage on hair by oxidizing its proteins and lipids, a phenomenon known as “Photo-damage”5,6

Frequent exposure to UV radiation leads to color fading and causes noticeable yellowing of the hair. This effect is especially pronounced in bleached hair, which lacks the protective melanin that shields against UV radiation.

The result is hair that appears significantly lighter and takes on brassy tones. It’s worth noting that individuals with red or darker hair colors should also be cautious, as their hair can fade to a brassy hue in the absence of UV protection.

Solar-induced Oxidation of Hair Amino Acids

Hair contains amino acids and other molecules that can be vulnerable to oxidative harm induced by UV radiation.

UV radiation is a catalyst for the creation of extremely reactive species that can oxidize the amino acids in hair, ultimately leading to the development of a yellowish tint. This yellowing phenomenon is often linked to the degradation of the amino acid Tryptophan.

The oxidative process of tryptophan results in the formation of kynurenines, which are oxidized derivatives that exhibit a yellow coloration. As a consequence, hair fibers take on a yellowish hue.7

It’s worth noting that the oxidation of tryptophan is more noticeable in extensively bleached hair, as it lacks the protective melanin that shields against such oxidative processes.

Chlorine Exposure: Swimming Pool

Chlorine is commonly introduced into pool water to effectively deter the growth of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, ensuring the maintenance of water quality.

However, even the minute concentration of chlorine present in pool water can initiate an oxidation process within hair fibers. This oxidation process follows a similar free radical mechanism and targets the amino acids within the hair fiber, causing them to undergo oxidative changes.

Bleaching – Unwanted Effects

Hair color may take on a yellow tinge when melanin degradation during oxidative hair bleaching is inadequate or incomplete.

Two types of melanin are found in hair: Eumelanin, responsible for brown and black colors, and Pheomelanin, which imparts a red-yellow tint.

These two melanins have distinct molecular structures and react differently during bleaching.

Low-volume hydrogen peroxide or improper pH control during hair bleaching can result in an unexpected yellowish hue. This may be attributed to a side reaction that occurs during the bleaching process.

This phenomenon has also been described as the accumulation of metal ions on hair fibers. The presence of calcium, magnesium, and, notably, transition metal ions like copper and iron can trigger various side reactions, leading to considerable hair damage and the development of unwanted yellowing.

Hard Water

Hard water contains high concentrations of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium. When hair is repeatedly washed with hard water or tap water, a mineral buildup can occur on hair fibers. This is more commonly observed in people who live in areas with hard water.

The build-up of minerals on hair fibers can cause hair yellowing. In addition, hard water also makes hair dull, dry, and unmanageable.

Heated Styling Tools

Hot tools like a hair dryer, curling iron, and flat iron can cause hair yellowing. The heat from these styling tools can damage hair proteins and keratin fibers. In addition, the heat can also strip hair of its natural oils and moisture, making it more susceptible to damage.

Causes of Yellowing Grey Hair

Hair yellowing with gray hair

Hair yellowing is a natural part of aging, although it’s not something we often like to acknowledge. As we age, our hair follicles produce less melanin, the pigment responsible for hair color. Additionally, the hair shaft becomes thinner and more translucent over time, contributing to the development of a yellowish tint, including white hair.

There are various other factors that can play a role in hair yellowing, including:

  • Smoking
  • Exposure to air pollution
  • Hard water
  • Frequent use of heat styling tools
  • Certain hair products, such as silicones, can accumulate on the hair’s surface, causing it to appear dull and yellowish over time
  • Use of specific medications
  • Medicated shampoos like Minoxidil
  • Exposure to chlorine and other chemicals, such as hair dyes
  • Stress
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Autoimmune disorders

If you’re concerned about your hair yellowing, it’s best to talk to your doctor or a dermatologist to rule out any underlying health concerns. Otherwise, enjoy your silver hair status!

Understanding the Effects of Natural Oils on Hair Color

Natural oils and butter have a rich history of hair and skin care use, dating back to ancient times. These botanical extracts are known for their potential benefits for hair and skin health, supported by ample evidence.

There is some discussion about certain oils potentially causing hair yellowing, but this isn’t always the case. It’s important to consider several factors, and the outcome may vary from one individual to another.

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  1. Antioxidant Properties: Most natural oils are rich in antioxidants, such as tocopherols and sterols, which can protect hair from the damaging effects of the sun.
  2. Unique Cases: The impact of oils on hair color depends on various factors and can differ from one situation to another. Each case is unique.
  3. Natural Virgin Hair: Hair that is naturally dark in color and has a high melanin presence, like natural virgin hair, typically does not turn yellow when exposed to natural oils.
  4. Blond Hair: In contrast, blond hair with a silver base may exhibit a slight yellowish tint when certain oils are used.
  5. Colorless or Lightly Colored Oils: Most natural oils are either colorless or have a light, creamy off-white hue. They do not contain natural coloring agents. For instance, coconut oil is nearly colorless, and shea butter has a slightly off-white color. These emollients are excellent choices for hair conditioning and generally do not cause hair yellowing.

Understanding Argan Oil and Hair Yellowing

Woman with curly hair twirling strands around her finger.

Some oils naturally have a dark yellow color due to the presence of yellow coloring molecules in their composition. Argan oil is a prime example of such an oil.

Here’s what you need to know about argan oil and its potential impact on hair color:

  1. Natural Color: Argan oil ranges from orange to dark yellow in color. When applied to silver, grey, or blond hair, pure argan oil can lead to yellowing hair.
  2. Surface Yellowing: The yellowing effect is primarily limited to the surface of the hair and is caused by the deposition of coloring molecules.
  3. Consideration for Silver Blond Hair: If you have silver blond hair, it’s advisable to avoid using pure argan oil formulations with high concentrations of argan oil.
  4. Emulsified Formulations: Argan oil is commonly found in shampoos, conditioners, and hair masks. These products are generally safe to use because the oil has been emulsified, and its particle size has been significantly reduced.
  5. Dilution and Safe Usage: Such formulations typically contain argan oil in concentrations ranging from 0.25% to 2.50%, blended with other ingredients in a water-based product. The likelihood of causing blonde hair to turn yellow with these products is extremely low.
  6. Patch Test: Argan oil is extremely unlikely to cause long hair to turn yellow. The best way to ensure safety is to perform a patch test by applying the product to a small section of your hair strands before using it on your entire hair. If you do not observe any hair yellowing, the product is likely safe for your use.

Preventing Hair Yellowing: Effective Strategies

Hair yellowing is a concern for many, but there are proactive steps you can take to prevent it. Here are some effective strategies to keep your hair looking its best:

Solar Protection

Sunlight is a major contributor to hair yellowing. Using a solar protector during the day is essential. Shield your hair from the sun’s rays by wearing a hat, shawl, umbrella, or scarf on hot and sunny days. These measures help prevent photo hair damage.

Regular Conditioning

Bleached hair, especially blond hair, benefits from regular conditioning. Leave-in conditioners are particularly effective, containing natural emollients, antioxidants, and free radical scavengers. Consider top picks like Sun Bum leave-in conditionerVerb Curl leave-in conditionerCoola Organic Scalp & Hair Mist SPF 30Aveda Sun Care Protective Hair Veil, and Righteous Roots 2-in-1 Conditioner.

Shower Filter 

The water from your shower head can contain contaminants contributing to hair yellowing. Installing a shower filter can help remove impurities from the water before it reaches your hair. The Ion showerhead is highly recommended for this purpose.

Chelating Shampoo

Consider using a chelating shampoo to address hard water deposits, product buildup, and other impurities like chlorine and heavy metals that can cause hair yellowing. Recommended products include Malibu C Hard Water Wellness (my go-to), Ion Hard WaterOuai Detox ShampooKinky Curly Come Clean.

Pre-Swim Hair Product

Before taking a dip, use a pre-swim hair product to create a protective barrier between your hair and water. This safeguard helps prevent damage from chlorine, saltwater, and more. Try products like AquaGuard Pre-Swim Hair DefenseIon Swimmer’s Leave-in conditioner, and TRIHARD Pre & Post Swim Conditioner.

Heat Protection

A heat protectant is a must if you frequently use heat styling tools on your hair. It helps safeguard your hair from damage caused by heat. Consider using products like Redken One United All-in-One Leave-In Conditioner and Heat ProtectantOuai leave-in conditionerRedken Iron Shape 11 Thermal Holding Heat Protection SprayBiolage Styling Thermal Active Spray, or It’s a 10 Miracle Leave-In plus Keratin Spray.

By incorporating these practices into your hair care routine, you can effectively prevent hair yellowing and keep your hair looking vibrant and healthy.

Restoring Yellowed Hair: Effective Solutions

If your hair has already developed a yellow tint, don’t worry—there are solutions to help bring back its natural color and vibrancy. Here’s how to address yellowed hair effectively:

  1. Understanding the Cause: Bleaching can make your hair more porous, causing it to absorb and release moisture more easily. Additionally, color molecules are released when your hair comes into contact with water.
  2. Purple Shampoos: Purple shampoos are your go-to solution for maintaining fresh-looking hair and neutralizing any yellow tones that may have developed. The color yellow is opposite to blue/purple on the color wheel, making these shampoos effective in combating yellow tints in hair.
  3. Anti-Yellow Products: Look for shampoos or conditioners specifically formulated to counteract yellowing. These products contain blue or purple pigments that neutralize the unwanted yellow tones in your hair.
  4. Intensive Conditioning: In more severe cases, consider using a purple conditioner or hair mask when your hair has already turned yellow. These products are designed to improve hair color and restore its natural shade.

For a list of hair care products, including purple shampoo, to help restore yellowed hair, click here.

Top Oils to Maintain Blonde and Gray Hair’s Beauty

Blonde and gray hair can be stunning, but they also come with the challenge of maintaining their vibrancy and preventing yellowing. Several oils can be your hair’s best friend in this journey. Here are the top oils to keep your blonde or gray hair looking its best:

  1. Argan Oil: Argan oil is a superstar for blonde and gray hair. It shields your hair from sun damage while providing essential hydration to maintain its health and shine.
  2. Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is a fantastic choice for both blonde and gray hair. It deeply conditions your hair and prevents protein loss, ensuring it stays soft and nourished.
  3. Malt Vinegar: A few drops of malt vinegar can work wonders if you’re dealing with hard water. It helps remove buildup and prevents the dreaded hair yellowing.
  4. Heat Protectant Oil: A heat protectant oil is a must-have for those who regularly use heat styling tools. It minimizes damage and keeps your hair looking healthy and vibrant.
  5. Light-Textured Oils: If you have excessively bleached hair that’s damaged and porous, opt for light-textured oils. Use them sparingly to avoid overloading your hair. Here are some excellent options:

Conclusion

And there you have it! Now you know all there is to know about hair yellowing, its causes, and how to prevent it. Whether your hair is naturally blonde or you’re a brunette who’s been bleaching their hair for years, we hope this article has been helpful.

So, go out there and enjoy your life without worrying about your hair turning yellow. And in case you ever need a quick fix, just remember, there’s always the option of hair dye!


References

  1. Zavik, C.; Milliquent, J., Hair bleaching. In The Science of Hair Care, 2nd ed.; Bouillon, C.; Wilkison, J., Eds. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC London, 2005; pp 246-268. ↩︎
  2. Wolfram, L. J.; Hall, K.; Hui, I., The mechanism of hair bleachingJ. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 1970, 21 (13), 875-900. ↩︎
  3. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005. ↩︎
  4. Ortonne, J. P., Photoprotective properties of skin melaninBritish Journal of Dermatology 2002, 146, 7-10. ↩︎
  5. Nogueira, A. C. S.; Dicelio, L. E.; Joekes, I., About photo-damage of human hairPhotochem. Photobiol. Sci. 2006, 5 (2), 165-169. ↩︎
  6. Ruetsch, S. B.; Kamath, Y.; Weigmann, H. D., Photodegradation of human hair: An SEM studyJ. Cosmet. Sci. 2000, 51 (2), 103-125. ↩︎
  7. Dario, M. F.; Freire, T. B.; de Oliveira Pinto, C. A. S.; Prado, M. S. A.; Baby, A. R.; Velasco, M. V. R., Tryptophan and kynurenine determination in human hair by liquid chromatographyJournal of Chromatography B 2017, 1065, 59-62. ↩︎

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