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White Hair: What is the Role of Oxidative Stress?

It is well known that oxidative stress is harmful to the body and skin. However, its role in the onset of white hair is somewhat less understood. How do free radicals contribute to the whitening of hair fibers? Through what biological mechanisms? Discover here how oxidative stress influences the graying of hair.

Published April 23, 2024, by Pauline, Head of Scientific Communication — 6 min read

How are free radicals formed in melanocytes?

Free radicals are unstable molecules that carry a positive or negative electrical charge in their outer orbital, meaning they have an unpaired electron. In order to stabilize, they seek to acquire an electron from another molecule (protein, lipid, DNA...) by reacting with it. These reactions cause cellular damage and physiological disturbances at various levels of the body, including in the melanocytes.

Free radicals are naturally produced within cells during chemical reactions, particularly within the mitochondrial respiratory chain. This complex of protein structures involves a series of oxidation reactions that consume oxygen and produce derivatives: reactive oxygen species (ROS). Under so-called physiological conditions, the production of ROS remains low and only concerns a small percentage of the oxygen captured by respiration. However, certain environmental factors such as pollution, UV rays, cigarette smoke, and alcohol also generate free radicals. When the body's antioxidant defense systems are overwhelmed and can no longer neutralize them, an unstable imbalance occurs: this is referred to as oxidative stress.

How does oxidative stress accelerate hair whitening?

White hair typically begins to appear around the age of 35, in response to the gradual decrease in the number and activity of melanocytes, the cells responsible for melanin production. This pigment, also present in the skin, is what gives hair its color. Its absence results in white hair. Alongside the aforementioned decreases, the melanocytes in the hair bulb can be affected by oxidative stress. Several clinical studies have shown that free radicals can target and damage these cells. One such study, conducted with over 600 volunteers, particularly demonstrated a link between smoking, a factor of oxidative stress, and the early onset of white hair.

As previously stated, free radicals can damage cellular components. The mitochondrial DNA, the intracellular organelles essential for cell function, is particularly susceptible. Free radicals cause mutations in this DNA, specifically deletions, meaning a loss of genetic material. This impacts the activity of the mitochondria, which in turn affects the melanin synthesis process by melanocytes and accelerates the onset of white hair.

Oxidative stress also has an impact on the Bcl-2 family molecules. These molecules, primarily expressed in the mitochondria, protect them from free radicals and the ensuing apoptosis. However, Bcl-2 molecules themselves are sensitive to oxidative stress, which initiates a vicious cycle. Free radicals attack the Bcl-2 in the mitochondria, which then become increasingly sensitive to oxidative stress as the quantities of Bcl-2 decrease. Catalase and superoxide dismutase, endogenous antioxidant enzymes, are not spared and can also suffer damage from free radicals. Furthermore, it should be noted that tyrosinase, the enzyme catalyzing the oxidation of tyrosine into melanin, sees its activity decrease in the presence of oxidative stress.

Finally, researchers have observed an ectopic differentiation of melanoblasts in the hair follicle in response to damage caused by oxidative stress. Melanoblasts are the undifferentiated precursor cells of melanocytes. When they differentiate, they acquire their melanin-producing function. Following this observation, scientists have suggested that the untimely ectopic differentiation of melanocyte stem cells in the hair follicles reduces the stock of stem cells. The cellular renewal of melanocytes then loses efficiency, which accelerates graying.

Antioxidants to slow down graying?

To combat oxidative stress and the onset of white hair, it is recommended to increase your intake of antioxidants. Several solutions exist: diet, dietary supplements, cosmetics... However, caution is advised regarding the second option: before starting a supplement regimen, we advise you to consult with your primary care physician. As for antioxidants provided by diet, the most common are vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, and selenium. There is an index that allows the evaluation of the antioxidant power of foods: the ORAC index (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). The higher it is, the better the food's ability to absorb free radicals. A normal diet averages 2000 ORAC units per day. To reduce oxidative stress, the ideal would be to reach 3000 to 5000 units. The table below includes some foods with the highest antioxidant potential.

Food (100 g)ORAC Unit (per 100 g)
Dark Chocolate20,000
Red fruits (strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, cherry, cranberry)4000
Granny Apple3800
Cabbage (Brussels sprouts, red, broccoli)3000
Green Tea1300

Even though further studies on this subject are still necessary, it can also be assumed that the use of hair cosmetics rich in antioxidant actives can help slow down hair whitening. Among the most commonly used in formulation are vitamins A, C, and E, coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, caffeine, green tea extract, turmeric, and ginseng.

Important : Protecting oneself from oxidative stress also involves avoiding its sources, particularly UV rays. Therefore, it is recommended not to expose oneself to the sun for extended periods, especially during the hottest hours of the day.


  • MOSLEY J. G. & GIBBS A. C. Premature Grey Hair and Hair Loss Among Smokers: A New Opportunity for Health Education? British Medical Journal (The BMJ) (1996).

  • PETERS E. & al. Towards a "free radical theory of graying": melanocyte apoptosis in the aging human hair follicle is an indicator of oxidative stress induced tissue damage. The FASEB Journal (2006).

  • TRUEB R. M. Oxidative Stress in Hair Aging. International Journal of Trichology (2009).

  • CODERCH L. & al. Efficacy of antioxidants in human hair. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology (2012).

  • SEIBERG M. Age-induced hair greying - the multiple effects of oxidative stress.International Journal of Cosmetic Science(2013).

  • TRUEB R. M. The impact of oxidative stress on hair. International Journal of Cosmetic Science (2015).


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