how not to f*ck up your face

Can Your Hair Turn Gray Overnight?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

The world can feel like a precarious place, but there’s good news about how much worrying about it can affect your looks.

Q: Is it possible to turn gray practically overnight?

A: The short answer: No. The long answer: You know how the older you get, the more quickly time seems to pass? My thought was that even though it may take several years for your hair to turn gray, it can seem like it happened overnight. Dermatologist and hair wizard Hadley King confirms that an actual overnight transformation is highly unlikely.

To begin at the root of the issue: “Hair follicles contain melanocytes, cells that produce pigment called melanin,” she explains. “As we age, melanin production decreases, so hair, losing pigment, turns gray and eventually white.”

The age at which these changes occur is largely determined by genetics, says King. But the rate of melanin production slowdown and consequent graying can be accelerated by factors like smoking, anemia, poor nutrition, low levels of B vitamins, or an untreated thyroid condition.

What about stress? Trauma? A sudden catapult into the black hole of existential dread? “Stress hormones cannot cause hair to turn gray overnight,” says King. Though they may be a factor in the survival and/or activity of the melanocyte population, no clear link has been well established between stress and gray hair. One theory is that stress hormones could cause the inflammation that drives the production of free radicals; it’s possible these free radicals could influence melanin production. But we need more data, says King. There is a study on mice, supporting the idea that compromised antioxidative activities in graying hair roots contribute to the destruction of hair-follicle melanocytes.

But if you’re thinking it’s a fine idea to counter compromised antioxidative activity with antioxidant supplements, King wants you to think again. “Studies about humans taking high doses of oral antioxidant supplements often end in increased morbidity and mortality, presumably because our bodies benefit in some ways from free radicals — our immune systems need free radicals to help kill cancer cells, for example,” she explains. (Seventy-eight randomized trials with 296,707 participants were performed. The increased risk of mortality was associated with beta carotene and possibly vitamins E and A but not vitamin C or selenium. The current evidence doesn’t support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population or in patients with various diseases.) So be cautious about translating theoretical benefits into taking unproven supplements.

Which brings me to our second reader’s curiosity.

Q: I spent a wad on Arey supplements. They promise to stave off my graying dark-brown hair, which is my lifeblood. Watching my hair lose its will to produce pigment has me feeling like a letch (when I flirt with servers, for example). What do I need to know about the products I am putting into my body?

A: Are you saying people with gray hair shouldn’t flirt with servers? There are a few silver foxes among us who might take issue with your position.
As for the Arey supplements (similar to Vegamour supplements), King is familiar with them and points out that there isn’t a whole lot of data to support their claims about slowing down the graying process. However, one of the ingredients in the company’s products, palmitoyl tetrapeptide 20 amide, has been shown in small studies to preserve the function of follicular melanocytes and promote hair pigmentation (a.k.a. slowing the loss of melanin).

Still, there are two issues that put me off: I think you must continue to take the supplements for them to work, so you’re basically on a never-ending subscription. And as is the case with most magical products or devices, the less they have to do, the better they work.

Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, the Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now she writes the weekly newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the beauty arena from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn how to be loving witnesses to ourselves and one another as we age.

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