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The question is pretty simple: what is happening molecularly when hair turns grey or white? I would imagine that it is due to the lack of a particular compound. I'm also interested in why some people's onset of grey hair happens much later than others.

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Each individuals hair colour is determined by the particular pigment they produce (called melanin - the same stuff in your skin that makes you tan).

As the body ages this pigment (produced by the melanonocytes - cells that reside in the hair follicle) is produced less and less, until the hair is no longer coloured, and appears grey.

This is unique to each individual because it is a genetic (and therefore highly heritable) trait. Because it is in no way linked to mortality there is no selection pressure against greying hair.

The reason that the pigment is not longer produced is the gradual depletion of the stem-cell pool with age. This is common to many tissues, hair follicles being just one. As the 'pool' of stem cells is depleted, the melanocytes are no longer replaced as frequently, and thus less pigment is produced as we age.

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    $\begingroup$ Are there ideas as to why the pigment production declines with age? $\endgroup$ – Rory M Jun 27 '12 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @RoryM - added reference to interesting review on the subject. $\endgroup$ – Luke Jun 27 '12 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer and the edit (which is what I was most curious about). $\endgroup$ – LanceLafontaine Jun 27 '12 at 16:20
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The reason for this is that catalase, the enzyme responsible for catalyzing the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide on the surface of the skin, diminishes as we age.The "greying" is the the effects of bleaching of the hair fiber as result of the increased peroxide levels at the skin's surface.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not exacly can you add any references for your claims ? $\endgroup$ – L.Diago Oct 4 '18 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ To reinforce the comment made by @L.Diago, I would suggest as a new user you consult the help on answering questions. The key thing about Stack Exchange sites is that answers are voted on in an objective manner. I do not know the answer to the question, but neither I nor the poster can judge if your answer is correct unless you provide evidence (references, preferably linked) in support. This is science. Nobody (or at least, not me) is going to accept it on your word, even if you are a Nobel Prize winner. $\endgroup$ – David Oct 4 '18 at 13:21
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Stress has finally been definitively shown to be a cause of graying hair.

  • As such, delay or acceleration of onset could be due to stress.

Work by Zhang et al. (2020) [postdoc in Ya-Chieh Hsu's lab at Harvard] showed that acute stress leads to hair greying through the fast depletion of melanocyte stem cells in mice.

Of note from their abstract:

hair greying results from activation of the sympathetic nerves that innervate the melanocyte stem-cell niche. Under conditions of stress, the activation of these sympathetic nerves leads to burst release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine). This causes quiescent melanocyte stem cells to proliferate rapidly, and is followed by their differentiation, migration and permanent depletion from the niche. Transient suppression of the proliferation of melanocyte stem cells prevents stress-induced hair greying. Our study demonstrates that neuronal activity that is induced by acute stress can drive a rapid and permanent loss of somatic stem cells, and illustrates an example in which the maintenance of somatic stem cells is directly influenced by the overall physiological state of the organism.

You can read a more complete summary of this work here

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