A Special Kind of Stress Is Turning Your Hair Gray
There’s a scientific reason why so many people are graying right now
A few months into quarantine, Amy Cannon noticed more gray hairs than usual. “I distinctly remember looking up from washing my hands one day and thinking ‘Oh, wow,’” says the 32-year-old writing professor. “The sprinkling of grays was more pronounced, and especially visible at my part.”
The fast onset of gray hairs — which some are experiencing for the first time ever — has become a widespread anecdotal trend amid lockdown. And while it’s hard to prove the pandemic is definitely causing more salt-and-pepper dos, science does point to a probable culprit: stress.
Stress has long been to blame for any uptick in gray hairs, pandemic or not. And for Cannon at least, this explanation makes sense. “I’ve joked about quarantine insomnia, but it’s true,” she says. “I’ve skipped menstrual cycles from the stress and stopped sleeping from the anxiety.”
Stress manifests itself in the body in a number of ways; stress acne and chronic inflammation are among the most common stress-induced effects. But how exactly stress impacts hair color — or, more accurately, the lack thereof — is less understood.
It helps to know how the graying process works, stress aside. Gray hair is a normal part of aging, particularly after age 30 (any grays that appear before then are considered premature graying). The more precise timing of when someone starts to gray is largely dictated by genetics. “Each hair follicle has pigment cells, which are called melanocytes, and over time, there’s this programmed cell death,” says Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Those melanocytes die off, which in turn shrinks the amount of pigment in hair, lightening strands and turning them gray.
“Despite expert consensus that stress and graying are linked, the actual biological mechanism that ties stress and graying is hard to pin down.”
It’s pretty straightforward — or would be, were genetics the only piece of the puzzle. “Everything’s really a combination of your genetics and your…