Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

The Vigilant Hypochondriac: The reason for gray hair may offer insight into cancer prevention

Years ago teenagers would comb hydrogen peroxide into their hair to give themselves a sun-bleached look. Little did they know they were applying the very same substance that, years later, would give most of them at least some gray hair. The only difference would be that the peroxide would be produced by their hair follicles, not the bottle.

Scientists have finally figured out that the natural buildup of hydrogen peroxide in hair follicles causes hair to lose its color. ("Gray" hair actually consists of white hairs mixed with the remaining colored hairs.)

This buildup occurs naturally in everyone, but normally the body releases an enzyme called catalase, which breaks the caustic peroxide down into harmless water and oxygen. As people age, however, this process slows down, allowing the peroxide to accumulate and damage the melanin cells containing the pigment that gives our hair and skin its color.

On top of that, the aging body also produces lower levels of the repair enzymes that help cells recover from peroxide damage, according to scientists in England and Germany who recently discovered how hair loses its color. This process inhibits another enzyme called tyrosinase, which promotes the production of melanin.

Hydrogen peroxide, produced by cells throughout the body, promotes the creation of free radicals, which contribute to the aging process by damaging cells. That's why scientists have long suspected that peroxide had something to do with causing hair to lose its color — something finally explained by the recent research published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

"This paper sounds very rational," said Dr. Mary Lien, assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The findings support the theory that the melanocyte cell death in the aging hair follicle is caused by free radical damage — a process very similar to skin aging."

Knowing what causes hair to turn white may have benefits beyond the cosmetic. Since melanin is produced by melanocytes, the cells that turn deadly in the type of cancer known as malignant melanoma, figuring out how the body shuts them down might contribute to the prevention and treatment of the disease. And if this process involves DNA damage, it might open new avenues to fighting cancer throughout the body.

But what about gray hair itself? Now that scientists know what causes it, can they "cure" it?

"This new insight could open new strategies for intervention and reversal of the hair graying process," the scientists state in their paper.

Lien concurs.

"There have been hints for many years regarding that," she said. "It would be analogous to a face mask containing antioxidative creams, or similar to UV protective sprays for the scalp, or conditioners. But how this pans out remains to be seen."

Tom Valeo is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. You can reach him in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

About the feature

The Vigilant Hypochondriac explains what happens to the body as it ages and what can be done to preserve good health.


About the feature

The Vigilant Hypochondriac explains what happens to our bodies as we age. But we don't have to go down without a fight. There are ways to ensure good health for a lifetime.

The Vigilant Hypochondriac: The reason for gray hair may offer insight into cancer prevention 10/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 28, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Council candidate James Scott sees a green future for St. Petersburg

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    ST. PETERSBURG — James Scott's central tenet is sustainability.

    St. Petersburg City Council District 6 candidate James Scott. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   TIMES]
  2. O.J. Simpson drawing world attention during plea for freedom


    LOVELOCK, Nev. — Former football star and convicted felon O.J. Simpson will command the world's attention once again Thursday when he pleads for his freedom on live TV.

    In this June 21, 1995 file photo, O.J. Simpson holds up his hands before the jury after putting on a new pair of gloves similar to the infamous bloody gloves during his double-murder trial in Los Angeles. During Simpson's trial, a prosecutor famously asks him to put on a pair of gloves allegedly worn by the killer. The gloves appeared to be too tight, reinforcing the immortal words of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." [AP Photo/Vince Bucci, Pool]
  3. Florida education news: lawsuits, trans rights, recess and more


    ANOTHER ONE: Palm Beach County may be the next School Board to pick a legal fight with the state over the controversial HB 7069, but they may do it alone. Board members Wednesday seemed conflicted about whether to participate with other school boards, like Broward and St. Lucie counties, in a joint lawsuit or sue on …

    Ya'riah Ellison, 6, of Tampa, works on a pop art self portrait at the Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa on Friday, July 14, 2017. On Thursday, July 20th, a new pop art exhibition will open in which children will be able to create self portraits in a variety of ways including screen printing, pointillism and pop art methods
  4. Looking Back: The Ybor City Streetcar gets a new life (December 27, 1991)


    Before World War II Tampa's public transportation needs were covered by a network of Birney streetcars, with a peak of 24 million passengers in 1926. When a local streetcar enthusiast came across a 1920's model, she contacted the Tampa Trolley Society with an eye towards restoration. That streetcar would become the part …

  5. Memories buoy 12-year-old 'deputy' as he copes with heart condition

    Human Interest

    LAND O'LAKES — As Brave Wetherington approached a potentially life-changing surgery, he did so with the confidence only a 12-year-old sheriff's deputy can possess.

    Brave Wetherington