Canities is the scientific term for the phenomenon of hair turning white. This natural process is the subject of many popular beliefs. Can white hair naturally regain its pigment? Can a head of hair turn white overnight? Here is an overview of the misconceptions about canities.
Canities: Debunking Misconceptions About Gray Hair.
- Misconception #1: Stress causes white hair
- Misconception #2: White hair can naturally repigment itself
- Common Misconception #3: "If I pluck out a white hair, two will grow back."
- Misconception No. 4: Hair can turn white overnight
- Misconception #5: White hair is more fragile
- Misconception #6: White hair is genetic
- Misconception #7: Pregnancy causes white hair
- Misconception #8: Lack of vitamins accelerates graying
- Misconception #9: The sun promotes the appearance of white hair
- Misconception #10: White hair is easier to color
- Misconception #11: Hair turns gray gradually
- Misconception #12: Only hair dye can conceal gray hair
- Misconception #13: White hair appears uniformly across the head
- Misconception #14: White hair easily turns yellow
Misconception #1: Stress causes white hair.
"Getting gray hair" is not just an expression. Stress can indeed accelerate the onset of graying. While the underlying mechanisms are not yet fully understood, it appears that certain hormones released in stressful situations can disrupt the activity of melanocytes, and therefore the production of melanin. To avoid seeing your hair turn gray prematurely, it is necessary to try as much as possible to manage your stress. Yoga or certain relaxation exercises can, for example, help you feel more at ease.
Misconception #2: White hair can naturally repigment itself.
This is both true and false. In fact, it depends on the cause of the white hair. If your white hair is due to aging, and therefore to the decrease in the number and activity of melanocytes, this is an irreversible phenomenon and your hair cannot naturally regain its original color. Similarly, if the cause is a chronic disease, the graying cannot be reversed.
However, if stress is the cause of your gray hair, a recent study has shown that it may be possible for it to naturally regain its color. Indeed, scientists observed in 14 individuals a depigmentation of their hair fibers due to a period of intense stress followed by a fairly rapid repigmentation, at a rate of about 28% per day.
Common Misconception #3: "If I pluck out a white hair, two will grow back."
This is a common misconception. Pulling out a white hair does not affect the ability of melanocytes to produce melanin in other follicles. Moreover, hair grows according to an independent growth cycle for each follicle, with phases of growth (anagen phase), rest (catagen phase), and shedding (telogen phase). When a hair is plucked, the cycle of other hair follicles is not disrupted.
Misconception No. 4: Hair can turn white overnight.
Inspired by Marie-Antoinette, Thomas MORE, and Jean GABIN, the myth of the sudden graying is a popular belief. Indeed, a growth cycle (anagen phase) lasts from 2 to 7 years. Knowing this, it is impossible for hair to turn entirely white in one night. One hypothesis to explain the sudden graying reported in history is as follows: it would be an autoimmune reaction, triggered by an emotional shock.
This is a unique and rare case of alopecia where the immune system mistakenly attacks only the hair follicles that produce colored hair. This attack triggers inflammation that disrupts the growth cycle of colored hair and causes it to fall out. Therefore, it's not that the entire head of hair turns white, but rather the colored hair is lost and the white hair remains, creating an optical illusion.
Misconception #5: White hair is more fragile.
It is often true, white hair is more fragile than colored hair. The lack of melanin in their cortex, the intermediate layer of the hair fiber, is the cause of this characteristic. Indeed, melanin does not only play an aesthetic role, but it also protects the hair, particularly by preserving it from oxidative stress caused by UV rays or pollution.
Misconception #6: White hair is genetic.
It's true. The age at which our first gray hairs appear is largely dictated by genetics. Studies have shown that people of so-called Caucasian type usually see their hair turn gray in their early thirties, those of so-called Asian type notice it in their late thirties, and those of so-called African type see it during their forties. Several genes are involved, such as the MC1R gene or the IRF4 gene. One or more mutations on these genes can speed up or slow down the graying of hair.
Misconception #7: Pregnancy causes white hair.
This is a myth. Pregnancy itself is not linked to graying hair. However, the stress caused by childbirth or the prospect of raising a child can accelerate the onset of white hair.
Misconception #8: Lack of vitamins accelerates graying.
It's true ! Deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin B9, selenium, iron, or copper can affect hair color and cause premature graying. The underlying mechanisms are varied and depend on the nutrient in question.
For instance, selenium and zinc are antioxidants that protect melanin from free radicals. Copper, on the other hand, promotes the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme that facilitates the conversion of tyrosine into melanin.
Misconception #9: The sun promotes the appearance of white hair.
The sun promotes the lightening of hair and is indirectly involved in graying. Indeed, the UV rays it emits generate free radicals, reactive species that a study has shown promote hair whitening. Free radicals are indeed involved in several mechanisms leading to the degradation of melanin and damage to melanocytes. Therefore, the sun contributes to the appearance of white hair.
Misconception #10: White hair is easier to color.
One might think so because white hair is almost devoid of melanin, which offers a wider range of color options. However, due to their fragility, white hair is not easier to color. Indeed, the scales, which make up the hair cuticle, lose cohesion over time and loosen. The hair then becomes more porous, while the fixation and retention of dye pigments become more challenging.
Misconception #11: Hair turns gray gradually.
This is false ! No color gradient can be observed on a hair strand. When it grows, it is either colored or white. More specifically, when the melanocytes in the hair bulb no longer produce enough melanin to be incorporated into the hair's keratin, the hair grows completely white. Therefore, a white hair grows white from its root and does not gradually become white as it lengthens.
Misconception #12: Only hair dye can conceal gray hair.
Not always. Depending on the proportion of white hair on your head, it's not necessarily required to use hair dye to hide them. A simple highlight on a few strands is sometimes enough. You can also adapt your hairstyle to camouflage your white hair or use an accessory, such as a headband or a scarf.
Misconception #13: White hair appears uniformly across the head.
This is generally false. White hair does not appear at the same rate all over the scalp. It is often observed that the first white hairs are located at the temples. It can also happen that they are grouped in a specific area of the hair, forming a visible streak of white hair. All of this contributes to the fact that the transition between colored hair and white hair can be difficult to manage.
Misconception #14: White hair easily turns yellow.
It's true. White hair can easily turn yellow. Several causes have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, among which is the oxidation of residual melanin. This oxidation leads to a change in the chemical structure of melanin, resulting in a yellow color. All hair shades can be affected by this phenomenon, but it is more visible on white hair for colorimetric reasons. Indeed, if you add white and yellow, you get a yellowish color, whereas if you add brown and yellow, you get more of a light chestnut color.
SEIBERG M. Age-induced hair greying - the multiple effects of oxidative stress. International Journal of Cosmetic Science (2013).
RAWNSLEY J. & al. Hair biology: Growth and pigmentation. Facial Plastic Surgery Clinics of North America (2018).