Does Stress Really Make Hair Turn Gray?


Mr. Obama has handled many difficult issues with aplomb, but is all this stress causing him to go gray?

A New York Times article highlighted (pun intended) Mr. Obama’s overnight graying. It is widely believed that stress causes you to go gray prematurely. In fact, it does not.

Hair turns gray because the pigment cells stop making pigment. The color in your hair is made by melanocytes (the same cell responsible for the deadly skin cancer, melanoma). We aren’t sure what makes the melanocytes stop making pigment.

Every hair on your body goes through three phases: 1. a growing phase, 2. a resting phase, and 3. a falling out phase. The longer your growing phase, the longer your hair will grow. Women have longer growing phases than men, which is why women can grow hair that is several feet long, but men cannot.

It might be that as we age, shortened stages of hair growth lead to less pigment. When only a little pigment is produced, we have gray hair. When no pigment is produced, we have white hair, which can appear faintly blue (hence the term blue-haired ladies).

Another factor in graying hair is hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is a natural oxidant; we produce an enzyme called catalase that breaks down hydrogen peroxide turning it into water and oxygen. As catalase function decreases, the levels of hydrogen peroxide increase. High levels of hydrogen peroxide block the production of pigment, leading to gray hair.

Most men and women start getting gray hairs in their 30’s and 40’s. How much gray hair you have depends on your race (white people gray faster than Asians or blacks) and your genetics (some people turn gray in their 20’s). On average, half of people aged 50 are at least 50% gray.

So how do I explain how Mr. Obama went gray in less than 100 days?  Perhaps it’s the same reason why Paul McCartney at nearly 67 years old does not have a gray hair on his head:  it’s a natural color, but it ain’t natural. Maybe Mr. Obama’s new gray hair is job stress after all — now that he is president he has had time for a cut but not a color.


Photos: Paul McCartney John Packer I Blank Slate Photography. President Obama by Jurvetson (flickr)

17 thoughts on “Does Stress Really Make Hair Turn Gray?”

  1. For years I use to think that stress was responsible for the graying of hair, until recently I did a research paper on this topic, and it turns out that we can blame gray hair on a PANTOTHENIC ACID deficiency, found in vitamin B. Maybe Obama is not eating right or taking his vitamins.. 🙂

  2. Hi! I love your blog!!! …and I have an idea what you could post about – MONOI oil. Please consider that 🙂

  3. Possibly the truth is that during the campaign his goal was to appear young, energetic, vital, and to appeal to a younger audience. Now that he is in office his goal is to appear seasoned, and capable, an “old hand” at being an executive. Gray hair can lend an air of experience and wisdom. It’s just another piece of theater.

  4. I wish stress and/or fear really did make hair go grey. I hate my real hair color and am tired of dying it. I’d rather be grey at 32! Even if I had to be president to get it!

  5. It could be true. Obama is causing gray hair for me…LOL

  6. Well, McCartney has used hair dye since around 1980! (Started going gray before he turned 40). In the flaming pie documentary from around 1996 his hair is completely gray during one period of the filming, and partially grey during the rest of it.

  7. Aw heck, Paul has it easy. Actor Patrick Stewart (best known as Captain Picard and Professor Xavier) went bald at 17!

  8. Hi,
    Great site!!!!! Good health is very important with the high cost of medical coverage. We need to have a healther lifestyle by taking care of our health eating and exercising. I am a cancer survivor and I know. Our health is our greatest asset. Keep up the Good Work!!!!!

  9. Brian Harrison says:

    If you don’t know what makes melanocytes stop making pigment, how do you know that stress doesn’t play a causal role?

    Here’s one of many possible causal chains:
    1. Chronic stress increases levels of adrenaline.
    2. Adrenaline causes oxidative damage to a variety of tissues. (Search Medline; you’ll find plenty of sources. Here’s one:
    3. Oxidative damage to melanocytes causes them to stop making pigment.

  10. very informative thank you for a nice site

  11. I?ve been looking around for articles similar to this but never found one that actually was valuable such as this. Glad I found this place!

  12. So you’re SURE stress doesn’t have any effect on aging, but you’re not going to explain to us WHY you’re sure?

  13. Oxidative stress is what causes gray hair and yes oxidative stress increases as regular stress increases. Look at Bill Clinton that went rapidly gray after several years in the white house. There are different ways to battle oxidative stress that can cause gray hair, wrinkling and a ton of other premature aging signs and symptoms.

  14. Thats very good news that graying isn’t related to stress. As my work is getting more difficult, I have noticed a few more than usual, but its good to know that it is only a coincidence. Thats funny about Obama, and how he is only “turning” gray because he has been too busy to go for a color.

  15. Dear Dr. Benabio,
    For the past several years I have been living with bumps and pimples on my scalp. I do not color my hair (which is salt & pepper), use Bert’s Bees products every other day, air dry my hair, and use conditioner after each shampoo as my hair has become very dry due to age (70 yrs.) What do you recommend to solve this scalp issue? My scalp is very sore to the touch.
    I have read many, many blogs and know there are thousands of people with the same problem.
    A reply would be very much appreciated.

  16. The Stress means a negative reaction to pressure, accompanied by fear of not coping, loss of control and lack of support. It is a physical and emotional experience and involves increases in blood pressure . Thanks for shairing info.

  17. way to go kevin, a little humor is good for your health. I have been full of humor all my live, 69 yrs.and I don’t even close to it, nor do I feel 69 but rather 45. keep your humor

Comments are closed.