Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

You don’t have to go grey! A leading expert reveals the secret to hanging on to your natural colour – with no dye needed

Finding that first grey hair is never a cause for celebration. For the vast majority of us, it’s just another reminder that old age is advancing a little faster than we would like.

But while the rate at which our hair colour changes is largely dictated by our genes there is some good news.

I’ve worked in this field for more than two decades, and in recent years there has been a growing body of research showing that, for some of us at least, there are ways to slow the rate at which our hair transitions to this state.

These include tackling stress at work or home – it can damage the delicate cells in the scalp that control hair colour – covering the head in the sun to protect against UV rays and even getting medical checks to ensure turning grey isn’t due to a hidden ailment.

And perhaps most surprisingly, research suggests that eating red meat, such as liver, could help preserve hair colour.

This is bad news for Britain’s estimated 2.5 million vegans, because as healthy as it is, a vegan diet lacks vital nutrients that protect hair against the ageing process.

 

Unfortunately, if you have a strong family history of relatives going completely grey in their 20s or 30s, your fate is probably sealed

Unfortunately, if you have a strong family history of relatives going completely grey in their 20s or 30s, your fate is probably sealed

In fact, I estimate that being vegan speeds up the greying process by about five years.

Of course, grey hair is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s great to see high-profile celebs, such as Hollywood stars Salma Hayek and George Clooney – as well as Britain’s own stage and screen legend Dame Helen Mirren – embracing their natural colour changes.

The greying process is often misunderstood. With age, our melanocytes (tiny cells in the skin that produce melanin, the pigment that gives our skin and hair colour) start to fail. The result is that hair doesn’t actually go grey – it becomes translucent, only appearing grey because it reflects the light from surrounding darker hairs.

But the fact is that millions of us go to extraordinary lengths to hide it.

Figures show UK consumers spend £280 million a year on hair dyes and colourants to cover unwanted silver threads. And it’s hardly surprising.

While the ‘silver fox’ look may be in vogue for some older men, surveys show turning grey ages most males by at least three years. For women, it’s even worse – they are judged to have aged by an average of six years and, research shows, are seen as less competent by others who have yet to lose their natural colour.

Unfortunately, if you have a strong family history of relatives going completely grey in their 20s or 30s, your fate is probably sealed. And there is no obvious cure for grey hair on the horizon.

My hair fell out so I know how much it means 

Grow old gracefully. That’s the rather dismissive mantra spouted by those who think hair is purely a cosmetic issue and nothing to do with our health or wellbeing.

But for many people, hair is closely related to their overall self-esteem and psychological welfare. And I should know – a few years ago I developed a condition called telogen effluvium that is often triggered by stress.

With healthy hair, not all of it is growing. At any one time about 85 per cent is growing and the other 15 per cent is resting or shedding – and this is dictated by your DNA. With telogen effluvium, hair that should be growing instead switches to resting or shedding, and even when it starts to regrow it sheds again very quickly, causing thinning and sparse patches.

In my case it was a result of the hugely restricted diet I was on after weight-loss surgery. I’m a hair expert so I knew what was going on, but even so it was profoundly traumatic. It fell out in clumps and washing it was terrifying – great fistfuls clogged the shower. I knew this was a temporary condition and my hair would eventually stabilise, but it wrecked my confidence. It felt like I had lost my identity.

What did it teach me? That hair isn’t just part of our identity, it’s also inextricably linked to our psychological health.

Wanting to stop the grey – or have a thick mane through a hair transplant – is not about vanity, it’s about taking care of your overall wellbeing. And the better that is, the healthier you’re likely to be.

But for everyone else, there may be a chance they can postpone the inevitable for several years, by following these simple steps.

No smoking or vaping – they kill colour cells

It’s been known for years that smoking tobacco can speed up the rate at which you go grey.

This is because toxins in cigarettes trigger oxidative stress, a biological process where unstable molecules in the body called free radicals – which are produced by smoking – attack and destroy healthy cells in the scalp that produce melanin, the pigment that gives your hair colour.

It’s likely that using an e-cigarette – also known as vaping – isn’t any safer.

A study at the Medical University of Silesia, in Poland, published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry in 2014, found regular exposure to nicotine – either through tobacco, e-cigarettes or even nicotine gum and patches – reduced melanin production in the scalp by about 16 per cent.

Keep out of the sun to avoid UV damage

Too much sun exposure isn’t just bad for your skin, as it also drains the colour out of your hair.

That’s because excess UV light triggers the same oxidative stress that smoking does, damaging melanin-producing cells in the scalp and speeding up the greying process. And it’s not just hair colour that suffers – studies show UV rays also disrupt levels of keratin, a protein in hair that strengthens and protects it.

Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors – such as builders or farm workers – should make sure they wear a hat.

But I would also recommend everyone uses specialist conditioners, such as Tricotain. Products such as this coat hairs in an antioxidant substance to protect them against sun-related damage.

Antioxidants work by neutralising the harmful free radical molecules (which trigger oxidative stress, damaging the delicate melanin-releasing cells) before they penetrate the hair and scalp.

The essential vitamin that vegan diets lack

About 2.5million people in Britain now pursue a vegan diet and lifestyle – but there’s a problem.

Vegan diets are notoriously lacking in vitamin B12, which is found in abundance in meat, eggs and dairy products but in much lower concentrations in plant-based foods. It’s not found naturally in fruits, vegetables or grains.

Vitamin B12 is absolutely crucial for cell regeneration, including that of melanocytes, and without enough of it in your diet it can bring on the greying of your hair.

For this reason, vegans are massively more at risk of going grey prematurely.

For people looking to maximise their B12 intake, the best food sources are liver and red meat. However, if you find these choices unpalatable you should try a daily supplement – your body needs around 1.5mg a day to stay healthy. On Amazon, you can find several firms selling more than a year’s supply of B12 tablets for less than £8, and these should easily deliver your daily needs.

For those who are meat-free, a daily iron supplement – such as Gentle Iron 20mg from Holland and Barrett (£8.99 for 90 capsules) – can help. This is because iron deficiency is known to cause hair to grey by also depleting melanin levels.

Stress is destroying your natural colour

Having a bad day at work isn’t going to affect your chances of going grey prematurely. But if you are experiencing chronic, long-term stress – whether it’s from a job you hate, financial worries or a troubled home life – it’s a different story.

Our bodies are programmed to release certain hormones – such as cortisol and norepinephrine – when we find ourselves under threat or feeling pressure. It’s part of the natural fight-or-flight response crucial to our predecessors’ survival in the wild.

But if that natural response doesn’t then switch off – and instead persists for days, weeks or even months – the excess cortisol can take a deadly toll on our bodies, including our hair. In addition, when in survival mode the brain prioritises the supply of blood and nutrients to cells and tissues (such as muscles) that are vital for escaping the crisis. Non-essential cells, such as melanocytes that dictate hair colour, are a low priority.

This isn’t a problem in a brief crisis, but if it carries on long-term then melanocytes begin to malfunction and hair colour fades.

Learn to de-stress through exercise and relaxation.

Turn down the hair dryer settings and keep your distance 

Most household hairdryers heat to between 20C and 60C. 

At the top end of that range it is enough to ‘bake’ not only the hair but the delicate melanin-releasing cells in the skin and hair follicles, turning off the supply of pigment to each strand of hair. 

It’s best to opt for a moderate setting and keep the drier a reasonable distance – about 8in – from your hair, while moving it around. 

But you don’t have to run marathons or spend hours doing yoga. The key is to simply find a distracting activity that relaxes you and takes your mind off your daily worries – whether it’s jogging, gardening, baking or reading a book.

If you’re not thinking about the stressful factors in your life for at least an hour or two a day, your stress hormone levels will decline and the impact of stress on your hair will be reduced.

Get the blood flowing with a head massage

Many people swear by simple head rubs as the secret to their youthful-looking locks.

And while there’s little hard evidence to say it works, there is some rationale behind it.

Gently massaging the scalp stimulates blood flow to both hair follicles and melanin-producing cells, helping hair to grow and potentially retain its colour. A plentiful supply of nutrient-rich blood is essential for both.

I often recommend my patients try the Manta Pulse (£59 on Amazon), a gently vibrating soft brush that massages the scalp. It was developed by a hairdresser whose wife was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and was worried about losing her hair.

Suddenly greying? Get your thyroid checked 

For most of us, turning grey is a slow process. But if you are worried that it’s happening faster than you expected, you might need to see a GP, as one common cause of rapid hair whitening is an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that releases the hormone thyroxine. This regulates the body’s metabolism, and studies show when thyroxine levels are low, because the gland is not working properly, we suffer fatigue, weight gain, depression and joint pain.

It also reduces melanin production by the cells in the scalp that give hair colour.

The good news is that there are several accounts in the scientific literature of patients regaining their hair colour once the underactive thyroid is treated with a synthetic form of thyroxine called levothyroxine.

It is prescribed to thousands of patients on the NHS every year and has few side effects.

Coeliac disease – where the immune system attacks the body’s tissues when exposed to gluten – can also make hair turn grey.

The condition affects about one in 100 people in the UK. However, it is unclear why it triggers a loss of hair colour.

Country living may slow the process

Air pollution damages hair colour in much the same way as cigarette smoke does.

Toxins such as diesel fumes that are inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream can trigger oxidative stress – damaging healthy cells in the scalp, reducing their ability to produce the melanin needed to retain colour.

City dwellers are more at risk. A recent report found that the population of London, for example, is exposed to levels of toxins, such as nitrogen dioxide gas, above World Health Organisation guidelines.

If you live in a built-up area, it is important to wash your hair regularly – at least every other day – to get rid of polluted particles that could penetrate the hair and damage melanocyte cells in the scalp.

And consider using an antioxidant-rich conditioner, such as Tricotain or Absolute Collagen, that can help protect against toxic deposits that might speed up the greying process.

Eva Proudman is founder of UK Hair Consultants and is the star of TV’s The Hair Loss Clinic

How did Hilary get to 70 and keep her head of auburn hair? 

I am a red-haired lady with only a few grey hairs, and I turn 71 in June. My mum was the same – she died aged 96 and went grey only when she was nearly 78. My hair colour may be linked to the fact that I also eat healthily, have never smoked, and drink only two glasses of red wine a week. I also avoid using hair dryers or straighteners. I rarely take medication because, thankfully, I’ve had no serious health problems.

Hilary Clift thanks her healthy diet for her vibrant hair colour

Hilary Clift thanks her healthy diet for her vibrant hair colour

Hilary Clift, Hampshire 

I’m really pleased to still have brown tones in my hair at 89. I attribute this to having taken pantothenic acid – also known as vitamin B5 – tablets for about 30 years, along with vitamin B12. All my siblings turned silver or white in their 60s, as did our parents.

Gloria Batabyal, Manchester

I’m 82 and still don’t have grey hair – people often assume I’m in my 60s! You hear that stress can lead to grey hair, but I’ve had to deal with plenty of personal trauma and tragedy. I do eat broccoli every day, and have done for 40 years, as well as very dark chocolate. Overall, I try to eat healthy foods.

Valerie Goodall, Lincolnshire

I am 67 with very thick fair hair that grows like wildfire without a trace of grey. I have no doubt that a lot of it is down to my genes. However, for ten years I have also been taking a teaspoon of organic black cumin seed oil every day for the various health benefits, and it seems to have made a big difference. I also have fast growing, very hard nails and very soft skin. My hair needs cutting every three weeks it grows so fast. My 75-year-old brother-in-law had badly thinning hair, and a couple of years ago he started taking the oil in capsule form. Within a month or so his hair was thicker and going back to its original colour.

Richard Goulden, via email

I am almost 75 and have brunette hair. I believe my genes play a part but I also have an excellent diet and often eat Brazil nuts, which contain selenium. Various studies have linked the mineral to good hair health. I keep to just two nuts a day as that has the recommended amount of selenium. I have very little evidence of grey hair and my hairdresser constantly remarks how fortunate I am.

Janet Stevens, London

As I race towards the end of my 81st year without a grey hair on my head, I do feel very fortunate. I’ve never worn a hat and I never will. I’m a firm believer that our hair is there for a very good reason – to protect us from the elements and to insulate from heat loss. Another thing which sets me apart from others my age is that I eat a full English breakfast most days, and it is usually the only meal I eat.

John Remington, Swindon

I am 79-years-old but I am lucky to have a mane of long, glossy dark hair without a trace of grey. This is entirely natural, and I put it down to the following: I have never dyed my hair, I wash it only once a week, and I have never used a hairdryer. I have never used heated curlers or straighteners. Also, I brush my hair from scalp to tip every day. People, always assume that I am about 20 years younger than I am.

Andree Gee, via email

I’m living proof that you can bring back your natural hair colour once it’s turned grey. It sounds gross, but I started taking bovine bile salts about four years ago to help with digestion, and a very pleasant side effect is that my hair colour is coming back. By the time I was 55 most of my red hair was gone, but now I only have a small grey stripe in front. It’s amazing.

Dawn Smith via email

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