Skip to content

Does Stress Make Your Hair Turn Gray? We asked the experts.

Dermatologists break down the effects of stress has on hair and debate whether it can cause gray hair.

A prevalent old wives' tale in beauty is that we worry our way to gray hair (case in point: the fabled Marie Antionette Syndrome or world leaders rocking new silver dos after years of serving their people). Though it is well known that stress affects our physical and mental health, does it actually have anything to do with premature graying too?

A sudden change in hair color can be considered one of the least important effects of stress on our bodies (gray hair itself is not harmful to our health in any way). But it can be worth looking into if you're really curious. To better understand the correlation between stress levels and gray hair, we turned to the pros. Read on below to see what they had to say.

Causes of Gray Hair

Hair follicles contain melanocytes, which are cells that produce pigment and give us our natural hair color. Hadley King, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, explains that as we get older, the number of melanocytes decreases and our hair starts to turn gray and eventually white. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, adds that there is a buildup of hydrogen peroxide at the root as we age, and that too can lead to decreased pigment.

The exact age at which graying of hair happens is predetermined by genetics. But the rate at which hair changes color can be made worse by certain habits such as smoking or poor nutrition, or health conditions, such as anemia, a vitamin B deficiency, or thyroid disease, says King. Studies show that free radicals may influence melanin production in our hair, but she says more data is needed to prove it. Something else that needs a bit more proof: the relationship between stress and going gray.

Can Stress Cause Gray Hair?

Regardless if you're dealing with psychological stress, acute stress, or chronic stress, the short answer to this question is maybe. “Stress can cause hair to gray; research studies have suggested that stress can have an effect on the sympathetic nervous system and the mitochondria in cells, causing graying by different mechanisms,” says Victoria Barbosa, MD, MPH, associate professor of dermatology and director of the Hair Loss Program at the University of Chicago Medicine. “[But] more studies are needed to better understand these mind-body connections.”

King agrees and says that stress hormones may impact the survival of melanocytes in our hair, but there is no clear link between stress and gray hair. Instead, there are just a few small studies that show it may play one of many factors that contribute to this color change.

"Stress may contribute to graying hair as it leads to oxidative damage which can lead to damage to the pigment-producing cells, leading to less melanin being produced,” adds Garshick. She points to a recent study that shows stress response in mice led to a depletion of melanocyte stem cells and can lead to graying. But at this time, she says more research is needed to better understand how stress impacts gray hair.

Stress Can Affect Hair in Other Ways

Stress is more of a risk factor with hair loss than with going gray. This type of hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, occurs when someone undergoes stress on the body or mind. King explains that stress can cause a large number of hairs to become synchronized and fall out more than the normal amount that you're used to. The good news is, she says, that this kind of hair loss is reversible and does eventually grow back.

Best Ways to Care for Gray Hair

There is no specific treatment for gray hair that may be caused by stress. Instead, experts say to try to manage those stressors the best you can. It's not a foolproof solution, but it might help. “Some basic science research suggests that addressing stress may also help reverse graying,” says Barbosa. “[But] more studies are needed in the area of reversing graying. Of course, finding healthy ways to manage stress is good for our overall health and well-being.”

Tweaking lifestyle habits and tending to health conditions may also help slow down the rate of your hair color changing. “Don't smoke, treat any thyroid conditions, and make sure to have good nutrition,” says King. “[And] in general, I would recommend a predominantly plant-based diet rich in antioxidants.”

As for vitamins and minerals you can take, Garshick says studies show that biotin, calcium pantothenate, zinc, copper, and selenium may help with pre-mature graying. King points to products such as Arey that contain palmitoyl tetrapeptide 20, which have been shown in small studies to promote hair pigmentation. But more data is needed to back up these claims.

If you choose to embrace your new silver strands, one of the best ways to care for them is with products that focus on moisture.“Many people notice that the hair texture changes as their hair grays, with hair becoming more coarse and dry,” says Barbosa. “So, it is important to use hydrating shampoos and good conditioners to restore moisture to the hair shaft.” She adds that you can turn to products with blue pigments to tone down brassiness and yellow undertones. Products like the Dove Love Your Silver Purple Shampoo and Ultra Light Conditioner contain biotin and purple pigment to keep white hair looking bright and hydrated. Or the Oribe Silverati Shampoo and Conditioner, both of which contain fir extract for a boost of moisture and a mix of blue and silver pigment to prevent discoloration.

Gray hair is bound to happen to all of us—and that's not a bad thing. If you notice a strand of hair changing color when you least expect it, don't sweat it. There are much more important things to worry about. “It's a normal part of the aging process and does not need to be corrected,” she says. “I'm so happy to see that people have really embraced gray hair recently. I think this is not just a trend but a paradigm shift that really speaks to our acceptance of beauty in all of its forms—even as we age.”

The original article can be found on Vogue US.

Share this article: