Whenever people talk about stress and gray hair, they always talk about the presidents. They come into office with a head full of black, brown, or blond hair, and eight years later it’s all shot through with gray and white. It has to be the stress of the job, right? So what is the stress of simply existing in 2020 doing to our hair?
Honestly, we don’t know for certain. Scientists are divided on how much stress enables going gray, or if it does at all. See, your hair doesn’t actually turn gray as you get older as much as the color in your hair slowly runs out, like a printer running out of ink. Cells called melanocytes are responsible for injecting melanin into your hair as it grows. Melanin is the pigment that colors our hair, and as we grow older, the melanocytes produce less of it, with the result that the hair gets grayer over time. And once those cells stop producing melanin entirely, the hair becomes completely white.
As usual, your genes are what primarily decide what happens to your hair: when you’ll start going gray; whether your hair will turn salt-and-pepper all over or if it’ll begin creeping in on the sides; how slow or fast the process is; and whether your melanocytes will run out of melanin completely, or if you’ll manage to stay gray until the end of your life. But stress could also be a factor.
“It’s an area of controversy, but I can see how there would be a link,” says Dr. Rajani Katta, of Katta Dermatology. “Stress causes a release of stress hormones in the body. There’s this really interesting animal study that found if you have really high levels of those stress hormones, they can start to damage those melanocytes cells that are in the hair follicles. If you really do damage to [them], then you’ll no longer produce pigment.”
To say 2020 has been stressful would be an understatement, but there’s no science in the world that could or would confirm, say, that quarantine is making us all go grayer 30 percent faster than we would have otherwise. It depends on your genes and your age, as well as how stressed you’ve felt over the past year.
All we can really say for certain is that our year in quarantine sure as hell isn’t making our hair any less gray. But compared to the rest of 2020, that doesn’t seem like something worth getting stressed about.