How Aging Affects Your Hair

If your hair is feeling coarser, drier, and stiffer in recent months or years, 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—can also occur. These changes can be more subtle but no less distressing for some people.

The hairs you see on your head are actually made up of dead cells that emerge from the hair follicle implanted within the outer layers of skin, known as the epidermis and dermis. Each strand is made of a protein called keratin and surrounded by an outer layer of overlapping scales called the cuticle.

Hair aging can be caused by genetic, biochemical, and hormonal changes to the hair follicle as well as environmental "wear-and-tear" to the hair itself. Good hair care can minimize some of these changes, while certain treatments can conceal damage you'd rather others not see.

Changes in Thickness and Texture

A single hair lives for up to six years. Given that hair grows a little less than half an inch per month, hair that is 12 inches long has been exposed to almost three years of ultraviolet light, friction from brushing, heat from blow dryers and curling irons, and chemicals used to coloring, perm, or straighten the hair.

This wear-and-tear can cause cuticle cells to become raised and softened, making the hair coarser and prone to breakage. Over time, the follicles themselves may produce thinner, smaller hairs, or none at all. This is referred to as senescent alopecia, an otherwise natural part of the aging process.

What You Can Do

Many products claim to counteract the effects of aging on hair. Since hair is technically dead after it emerges from the follicle, these cosmetic fixes modify the appearance of each strand rather than changing their structure. Popular options include:

  • Humectants, which bind moisture to the cuticle, making it appear smoother 
  • Hair conditioners, including natural oils, which seal the cuticle
  • Topical vitamin E derivatives, such as tocotrienols, which may reduce oxidative damage to the cuticle

Other products claim to protect the hair against UV radiation.

In addition to treating the hair with conditioners and humectants, avoid exposing the hair to excessive heat, including curling irons and flat irons. When blow-drying, keep the dryer at least six to 12 inches from your head.

How Hair Turns Gray

Though the biological processes that govern graying hair remain unclear, a person's hair will ultimately turn gray when melanin—the pigment that gives your hair and skin color—stops being produced.

Generally, the lighter your skin is, the sooner your hair will turn gray. Caucasians typically start to gray in their early 30s, around 10 years earlier than people with darker skin. Body hair—including the eyebrows, pubic hair, and chest hair—usually grays much later than the hair on the scalp.

One theory suggests that graying is the result of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals chip away at DNA in the melanin-producing cells in hair follicles, called melanocytes, until they finally shut down.

This could explain why hair tends to become coarser as it grays. Melanocytes are closely connected to the cells that build keratin in the hair shaft, called keratinocytes. Both reside in the basal layer of the epidermis and are subject to the same exposure to free radicals.

What You Can Do

Outside of letting your hair go naturally gray, there are a variety of coloring options you can choose from:

  • Permanent dyes, which create colored molecules within the hair shaft and can withstand repeated washing
  • Demi-permanent dyes, which are made up of colored molecules that penetrate the cuticle and last between six and 10 shampooings
  • Vegetable-based hair colors, both permanent and demi-permanent, that are said to work especially well on finer hair
  • Temporary tints, which are poorly absorbed by the cuticle and are intended for short-term changes in hair color

Thinning Hair and Baldness

By the age of 60, two-thirds of men will experience androgenetic alopecia, also known as male-pattern baldness. Typically, hair loss occurs on the top of the head or at the temples and can progress in some men but not in others.

It is believed that men who lose their hair have follicles that are predisposed to produce smaller and less visible vellus hair ("peach fuzz"). This is usually the result of hormonal changes that occur with age, although smoking can also contribute.

Women, meanwhile, can experience "female-pattern" baldness, resulting in thinning hair and a visible scalp. Genetics, shifting levels in male hormones (androgens) during menopause or premenopause, and vitamin deficiencies are all believed to contribute.

What You Can Do​

Currently, there is no cure for baldness. Some treatments are able to stimulate the growth of new, more visible hairs, including topical Rogaine (minoxidil) and oral Propecia (finasteride). The results of these treatments can vary from one person to the next.

For women, the only treatment approved by the FDA is minoxidil, sold under the brand name Women's Rogaine. The foam version is the same formulation used in men, while the topical solution contains 2% minoxidil compared to 5% used for men.

Hair transplants are another option. This involves the grafting of tiny plugs of healthy scalp from thicker patches of hair to areas of balding. It is an expensive solution that requires many treatments, but the results are permanent.

Too Much Hair

On the other end of the spectrum, having too much hair is a problem that many women face. The condition, referred to as hirsutism, is characterized by the abnormal growth of hair on parts of the body where male body hair typically grows, such as the face, neck, chest, thighs, and back.

Hirsutism may be caused by genetics, aging, certain medications, and conditions like polycystic ovary disease (PCOS). In rare cases, it may be a sign of ovarian cancer or adrenal cancer.

Though hirsutism is typically harmless, it can be embarrassing for many women, affecting their self-esteem and body image.

What You Can Do

If temporary solutions like tweezing, waxing, and depilatories aren't able to control excessive hair growth, you can explore more permanent methods of hair removal, including:

  • Electrolysis, which destroys the growth center of the hair with shortwave radio frequencies
  • Laser hair removal, which does the same with lasers
  • Vaniqa (eflornithine), a prescription cream that inhibits the production of enzymes that stimulate hair growth

If these interventions are inadequate, speak with an endocrinologist who may be able to diagnose and treat the underlying hormonal condition. If the cause is unknown, speak with your healthcare provider about further investigations.

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