Ask the Pharmacist
by Ron & Marla Chapleau

January 7, 2016


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Q) Why is my hair turning gray?

A) Hair colour, from birth to death, is a genetically determined trait (well, at least it starts off that way before we take matters into our own hands).

Hair colour is produced by cells known as melanocytes, which are located within the hair bulb of our hair follicles. The melanocytes produce pigment (pigment is a material which changes the colour of reflected light allowing our eyes to see hair as coloured rather than white).

This pigment is incorporated into the growing hair fibres producing the many shades of hair colour we see. Just what this colour is depends upon the ratio within the hair follicles of the two different types of melanocytes. The eumelanins produce brown and black colours while the pheomelanins lead to red and yellow colourations.

 Interestingly, hair colour also varies according to body site. Eyelashes tend to be darkest due to the fact that they have the highest amounts of eumalanin. Red tinges are fairly common in pubic, underarm and beard hair even in those with brown scalp hair due to the tendency of these regions to have higher concentrations of pheomelanins.

Hair colour changes in most of us throughout our life. At birth, a babyís hair colour is often darker than would be expected based on his/ her parents and it really isnít until this first coat of hair is shed and replaced at age 8 to 12 months that we get a more accurate indication of just what the childís hair colour will be going forward.

Human hair growth occurs in two phases.

The first phase, which lasts from 3 to 5 years, occurs when the hair shaft actively grows at a rate of approximately 1cm a month. This phase is known as the anagen phase.

Following this is the telogen phase which lasts for approximately three months during which hair growth stops within that individual follicle. Towards the end of this dormant phase, the hair shaft is shed and the follicle remains empty until the anagen cycle restarts. Normally when the growth cycle restarts, the melanocytes kick back in and ensure the new hair shaft is sufficiently coloured.

However, at the end of each cycle, some of these melanocytes become damaged and die. Each hair bulb has a reservoir of replacement cells ready to step up and take over, but this reservoir is not endless. When it is eventually used up, pigment production stops and the hair changes to a more transparent colour such as gray, white or silver.

Genetic factors once again decide when these reservoirs are depleted as evidenced by the fact that identical twins tend to go gray at the same age and at a similar rate and pattern. Most of us start to turn gray by age 30, usually at the temples first and then later across the scalp. In general, men have more gray hair than women and Caucasians have more than Asians and Africans.

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Hormones, estrogen and progesterone, can also alter hair colour and lead to a darkening of the hair. Some drugs that people take to prevent malaria can lighten hair while certain anti-epileptic drugs can darken it.

Premature graying can be a result of a number of medical conditions including certain ones from the autoimmune family of diseases, pernicious anemia and Down syndrome. There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that stress, diet or lifestyle plays any role.

The good news about all of this is that scientists have created a substance that mimics one of the enzymes in our body that serves to protect melanocytes from being damaged, thereby prolonging their survival. The agents are currently being formulated into hair care products (I believe LíOreal is one of the manufacturers) and will be released to an eagerly awaiting public. While they wonít re-colour your hair, the belief is that they will allow you to maintain your natural colour for a considerable period longer.


For more information about this or any other health related questions, contact the pharmacists at Gordon Pharmasave, Your Health and Wellness Destination, in Kincardine and at Port Elgin Pharmasave

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