How Aging Affects Your Hair

If your hair has you feeling more like Rumpelstiltskin than Rapunzel these days, it may not be your imagination. Turning gray is just one of the many changes your hair goes through as you age. Changes in your hair's thickness, texture and growth location — too little in some places, too much in others — occur over time.

Here's the science behind several common signs of hair aging and how you can fix them.

About Your Hair

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Each strand of hair is made of the strengthening protein keratin and is surrounded by an outer layer of overlapping sheets, like roof shingles, that make up the cuticle.

The only living part of the hair exists inside the hair follicle in the epidermis and dermis, which contains some of the fastest-growing cells in the body. The hair you can see is actually dead.

Hair aging can be caused by microscopic, biochemical, or hormonal changes that affect the follicle or environmental factors that cause wear and tear on the hair itself.

Changes in Thickness and Texture

A single hair lives for up to six years. Given that hair grows on average a little less than half an inch per month, hair that is 12 inches in length has seen almost three years of ultraviolet light, friction from brushing, heat from blow dryers, curling irons, and flat irons, and chemical exposure through coloring, perming, or straightening.

It's no wonder that hair wear and tear or weathering results. Cuticle cells become raised and softened, making the hair appear rougher and more prone to breakage. Over time, hair follicles themselves gradually produce thinner, smaller hairs, or none at all. This is referred to as senescent (age-related) alopecia, although it may simply be a part of the natural aging process.

What You Can Do

The anti-aging business is a multi-billion dollar industry. Many products claim to counteract the effects of aging on hair. They include humectants, which bind moisture to the cuticle, making it appear smoother, and hair conditioners that seal the cuticle. Other products provide hair with antioxidants and claim to protect against UV light.

Since hair is technically dead after it emerges from the follicle, these cosmetic fixes tend to work by modifying the appearance of each strand rather than changing the structure.

In addition to incorporating the use of some of the aforementioned products, you should also avoid excessive use of heat on your hair. Limit the use of hot tools like curling irons and flat irons. When blow-drying, keep the dryer at least 6 to 12 inches away from your head.

How Hair Turns Gray

The exact process of going gray is not well understood, although it is known that hair turns gray when melanin — the pigment that gives your hair and skin color — stops being produced. Generally, the lighter your skin, the sooner your hair will turn gray. Caucasians typically start to gray in their early 30s. It often occurs 10 years later for those with darker skin.

The onset of graying hair is largely determined by genetics. Dermatology researcher Ralph Trueb noted in his paper "The Aging of Hair" that 50% of people by age 50 will have 50% gray hair, regardless of sex and initial hair color. Body hair—eyebrows, pubic hair, and chest hair—usually grays much later than the hair on the scalp.

One theory chalks up the cause of graying to oxidative stress, one of the major theories of aging. Oxidative stress is a condition that occurs when an excess of free radicals are produced as new hairs are formed, which subsequently damages the pigment-creating cellular structures within the follicle.

This process may also explain why many people notice that their hair becomes coarser and tougher to manage as it grays since the cells that create melanin are closely connected to the ones that build the keratin hair shaft.

What You Can Do

If letting your hair go au naturel doesn’t appeal to you, you have a variety of coloring options. Reverse highlights put streaks of darker color back into gray hair. Permanent dyes work by creating colored molecules within the hair shaft and can withstand repeated washing. Semi-permanent colors can last between six and 10 shampoos, as they are made up of small molecules that penetrate the hair cuticle.

If you're serious about coloring your hair, there needs to be some element of permanence. Temporary tints look nice at first, but they are not absorbed by the cuticle and are easily washed out.

Thinning Hair and Baldness

By age 60, two-thirds of males have significant hair loss known as androgenetic alopecia, or simply as male-pattern baldness. Typically, hair is first lost on the top of the head or at the temples. It is believed that men who lose their hair have hair follicles that are predisposed to produce smaller and less visible vellus hair ("peach fuzz") over time as a result of hormonal changes. Smoking may also play a role in male-pattern baldness.

Women may experience "female-pattern" baldness as they age, resulting in thinning hair and a visible scalp. It may be due to genetics, shifting levels in "male" hormones (androgens), vitamin deficiencies, or certain health conditions.

What You Can Do​

Currently, there is no cure for baldness. Some treatments aim to stimulate the growth of new, more visible hair and include topical Rogaine (minoxidil) and Finasteride, which is taken orally. For women, the only treatment approved by the FDA is minoxidil.

A hair transplant involves grafting tiny segments or plugs of healthy scalp from thicker patches of hair to the balding area. It's an expensive solution that requires many treatments, but the results are permanent.

Too Much Hair

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes too much hair is the issue. Hirsutism is a condition in which hair starts to appear on a woman's body in areas that are associated with male body hair: the face, neck, chest, thighs, and back. It's caused by genetics, aging, some ailments and certain medications.

Though hirsutism is often a harmless condition, it can be embarrassing for women. In rare cases, it's a sign of a tumor in the adrenal gland or ovary.

What You Can Do

If temporary solutions like tweezing, waxing and depilatories aren't working for you, see your doctor. More involved hair removal techniques include laser therapy and electrolysis.

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