Going grey is still seen as a beauty taboo. But what if this giveaway sign of ageing no longer existed? Stylist investigates.
I remember finding my first grey hair. I was about 25 and doing my make-up as usual when IT caught my eye. How could it not? Maybe if I weren’t so dark, it wouldn’t have been so glaringly obvious, but as it was, this glinting silver strand shone out like a star in an inky sky. So I did what I imagine all women do. I pulled it out and examined it closely. The first thing that I noticed was that it wasn’t actually grey at all. It was almost white and slightly translucent, as if all the colour had been sucked out of it – as if something had been lost.
And that’s what it felt like, a loss. Because while, in the pub later that day, I recounted the episode for laughs in slightly melodramatic fashion, the truth was, I didn’t think it was funny. It was a marker of the end of an era; the first sign of being old. I don’t think I could have articulated at the time quite why it affected me so profoundly but
I’m not alone. Jennifer Aniston admitted that she actually cried when she found her first grey hair and, as psychotherapist Lucy Beresford explains, going grey has huge emotional and cultural significance. “You’ll often see your first grey hair before your first wrinkle so, for most women it’s the first time that they’re confronted with their own mortality,” she says, pointing out it’s not just the idea that we’re getting old that bothers us, but the idea that we’re actually already past it.
“For women, going grey represents not just the loss of youth, but also the loss of fertility. Historically, once you were grey, you were no longer sexually attractive and were past your reproductive years so, from an evolutionary perspective, redundant.”
Out to pasture at 25 – no wonder I was upset. Of course, as with many things, it’s different for men. A greying man has ‘salt and pepper’ hair and ultimately becomes a ‘silver fox’ – think George Clooney, Jose Mourinho or Pierce Brosnan. According to recent reports, a rise in requests for Gorgeous George’s sexy silver strands has sparked a trend for grey highlights for men at top salons.
But a greying woman is ‘lazy’, she has ‘let herself go’ – just look at the opprobrium heaped on Mary Beard or the interview where newsreader Fiona Bruce said that she felt she couldn’t let her grey hairs show, adding, “Of course, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I was a 48-year-old man.”
The fact is that going grey is the ultimate beauty taboo and, because most people refuse to freely embrace it, we’ve totally lost sight of what is normal and natural. There are a handful of older women in the public eye, such as Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, who are grey. And admittedly, a few months ago, the fashion industry had a fleeting romance with ‘granny chic’ hair as supermodels such as Kristen McMenamy made headlines for enhancing, not disguising, their grey locks. But look at Hollywood and there’s not a single 40-something woman who doesn’t have a full head of glossy blonde or brunette hair.
a miracle cure?
However, despite our desire to disguise those tell-tale streaks, the options open to us are limited. While skincare has moved on in leaps and bounds over the last century, dye techniques may have evolved slightly but we’re still fundamentally doing almost exactly the same as the Ancient Egyptians did – using various pigments, often derived from vegetables, to superficially change the colour of our hair.
But is it worth it? Trichologist Iain Sallis explains: “Cells called melanocytes produce the melanin, or pigment, that gives both hair and skin its colour,“ he says. “Hair goes grey when the melanocytes slow down their production of melanin, and eventually stop producing it altogether.’
As both the number of melanocytes and their efficiency diminishes with age, almost everyone will eventually go grey, it’s just a question of when. Greying is an inherited trait, so your best guide is your parents. If they showed silver streaks early on, chances are you will too. And, according to trichologist Philip Kingsley, the younger you spot that first rogue hair, the faster the transformation is likely to be.
However, all that could be about to change. New research published by the FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) has actually shed light on our understanding of exactly what causes grey hair.
Beyond genes, a variety of lifestyle factors also affect hair colour. The latest news is the link between going grey and oxidative damage (caused by unstable compounds known as free radicals).
For the first time, scientists have discovered that it’s not just genes that predetermine when and how we’ll turn grey. They now believe that massive oxidative stress (a build up of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle) is one of the key reasons for pigment loss.
The good news is that experts think this knowledge could lead to solutions that won’t just mask the problem, but actually get – literally – to the root of it, stopping hair from turning grey in the first place. In other words, a ‘cure’ for grey hair is now a serious possibility.
“It’s thought that damage from environmental pressures such as smoking, UV light, pollution and stress can induce oxidative damage thereby triggering the destruction of the colour-producing cells in the hair follicle,” says Sallis. (If you need more encouragement to ditch the cigarettes, a 1996 British Medical Journal study found smokers were four times more likely than nonsmokers to go grey prematurely.)
It’s this theory that’s behind the latest research into a cure for grey hair. In a study published last month, researchers into the skin condition vitiligo (when pale patches occur on skin) found that these patches were associated with the build-up of hydrogen peroxide – AKA bleach – and showed that applying a compound to the skin to reduce levels of hydrogen peroxide resulted in pigment returning. The idea is that the same compound could be used to reduce levels of hydrogen peroxide in hair follicles, and prevent grey hair.
A number of brands, such as Go Away Gray and No Gray Hairs, have already released supplements that contain ingredients similar to this peroxide-reducing compound. However, Kingsley says B vitamins could help. “We know stress uses up vitamin B and some studies have shown that certain B vitamins taken in large doses can begin to reverse the process of greying,” he says. As a result many supplements marketed as anti-grey are simply multivitamins with very high doses of B vitamins.
into the future
Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as popping a pill though, as there’s no single reason why hair goes grey. “This is a multifactorial problem,” Dr Bruno Bernard, head of hair biology at L’Oréal, explains. “There are so many genes, enzymes and environmental factors involved that it’s very difficult to pinpoint the one thing that’s most important.” And, this is why the ‘cure’ is taking so long.
The one thing that almost everyone seems to agree on is that early intervention is key, and that in all likelihood, the answer, when it comes, is going to be about prevention, rather than reversing the greying process.
While reports have speculated that a L’Oréal pill will be on our shelves by 2015, Dr Bernard is reluctant to predict what form his product might take, or indeed how long before it will be available, but he does allude to a holistic range of anti-grey products in the works – even if they are in the dim and distant future.
“From a scientific perspective, it would make sense to combine a supplement with a topical approach as this would help you tackle the problem from multiple angles,” he says. As for a timeline, Bernard thinks it would be “reasonable to expect something within the next decade.” He’s not alone in this view, the trichologists and scientists Stylist spoke to all firmly believe that, within the next 10 years, there will be credible products that can prevent grey hair.
Until then, the best preventative measures you can take are to ensure you have a balanced diet that’s rich in antioxidants and not deficient in vitamin B, avoid cigarettes and, as far as possible, other environmental pollutants and, if you’re not prepared to go grey gracefully, keep the number of a genius colourist on speed dial.
Oh, and don’t panic when you find your first one, it's really not the end of the world.
See below for our pick of the best ways to cover the grey, from root make-up (seriously) to the latest home hair colourants.
no more grey areas, guaranteed
From hair make-up to new high-tech colour mousses, Stylist selects the best new at-home fixes for grey hair the hair dye
The hair dye
No peroxide, no ammonia: unlike some products, Nice’n Easy blends grey the natural way, leaving damage-free colour that fades in eight washes. It comes in 11 shades and is perfect for first-timers and those who can’t commit.
Not all of us want to cover up grey hair – for those who want to keep their silver hair chic, this zero-sulphate (chemical free) shampoo contains a special anti-fade formula that tones grey hair to stop it going brassy, while helping to boost shine and smooth course texture.
This handy root make-up instantly disguises regrowth for a last-minute confidence boost. Just brush onto grey strands when the hair is dry and the finely milled, powder will blend grey hairs so no-one will notice them. It’s great for in-between salon visits. Available in four shades: blonde, light brown, medium brown and dark brown.
With Japanese engineered packaging and a new high-tech formulation, this product gives flawless colour in an easy to use non-drip mousse – just shake and apply directly onto hair. The first reusable permanent hair colour in a can, it comes in 14 shades.
We’ve got mascara for eye lashes, so why not mascara for hair? For those pesky grey strands that crop up around the hair line, this wash out cover-up is a handbag essential
(Main image: Getty)