Ask a Top Doctor: What Does It Mean If I’m Going Gray Early?

Top doctor and director of Penn's Hair and Scalp Clinic George Cotsarelis shares whether or not gray strands are a reason to worry

Illustration by Justin Renninger

Anyone who has ever found a gray hair knows that the experience can trigger a wave of panic—a panic that increases tenfold if you are under the age of 25 and already finding salt amongst the pepper. Finding a wiry, colorless hair—or many—can be disconcerting, but before you drive yourself crazy preening and plucking in front of the mirror, check out Top Doctor and director of Penn Medicine’s hair and scalp clinic George Cotsarelis’ thoughts on premature graying and whether or not it’s a reason to worry.

Gray hairs before the age of 30 are normal.
“It’s not unusual to have a few gray hairs even if you’re 18 or 20,” says Cotsarelis, noting that a gray hair occurs when the follicle stops producing melanin, the pigment that gives hair its color. “If you have blond hair you might not even notice them, but if you have dark hair they’re easier to see.” Of course, how many you get and when you get them is almost entirely pre-determined by your DNA, and if you’re finding gray hairs earlier than you expected, talk with your family or look through some old photos. “You’ll probably find other members have a similar pattern of gray hair developing at a similar time.”

It’s not stress.
If you’ve been stressing over the fact that your stress level is leading to more gray hairs, go ahead and relax. “There’s very little evidence that stress causes gray hair,” says Cotsarelis, noting that usually the only time hair will go from dark to light over night or in a few weeks is due to alopecia areata, a rare condition in which the immune system attacks dark hairs preferentially. “In general, the most stressed out people can have very dark hair and the most laid back people can have gray hair very early,” he says.

It’s not an indication of larger health problems.

Although in some rare cases, going gray is a symptom of a severe nutritional deficiency due to issues like eating disorders, in general the color of your hair isn’t a warning of health issues. “Copper is required for pigment production, but [copper deficiency is] highly unusual and most people get way more copper than they need in their diet. It’s not something you need to worry about unless you’re severely nutritionally deficient.”

Plucking doesn’t cause proliferation
You’ve heard the old wives’ tale: plucking one gray hair leads to several more. However, Dr. Cotsarelis insists that is just not the case. “Generally, when you pluck a hair it looks like it comes back thicker. Part of the reason is because you stimulate the [plucked] hairs to go into a growing stage.” When you rip a hair out of the follicle, that follicle produces a new hair. Most of the time, only about 90 percent of the follicles on your head are growing at any one time, says Cotsarelis, but when you rip out the hair, it makes those follicles all grow new strands simultaneously, so it looks thicker.

Gray hairs may have a different texture, but it’s not due to color.
If those pesky grays seem wiry and unmanageable, don’t blame their texture on the loss of melanin.“[Hair texture] is really determined by a different mechanism,” says Cotsarelis. “As you grow older, your hormones change and your hair is going to change, regardless of whether it’s going gray or not. As you age, you start to lose hair volume and the texture can change. It’s determined by your genetics so there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.”

It’s impossible to predict your future as a Silver Fox.
“People go gray at different rates,” says Cotsarelis, noting that you can’t really predict if or when you’ll wind up with a full head of snowy hair, and that there’s nothing one can do diet-wise or pill-wise to slow down the graying process. “Just look at it as a sign of wisdom,” says Cotsarelis. That, or color your hair.