Betty the Barber, Brad Pitt and Me
(no. 12) If hair naturally goes white, why is mine reverting to black? by Stephen P. Williams
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But first, this: older women are the beauty industry’s next potential gold mine.
British Vogue deputy editor Sarah Harris does grey hair very well. IG: @Sarahharris
I’ve been visiting a barber named Betty every four to six weeks for 25 years, and she’s watched my hair progress from salt and pepper to nearly pure white. In that time we’ve talked about how Brazil nuts can change your life, why she’ll never move back to her native Colombia, and how to deal with New York City jerkoffs. Lately we’ve talked about my miraculous regression, and the stacks of money I could earn from it.
That’s because a weird patch of black hair has been moving up from my neckline towards my scalp, an inch or so a year. Betty is mystified, and encourages me to get to the bottom of it so I can sell the secret to a drug company.
“In five years your whole head will be black,” she said on my last visit. “You are Benjamin Button.”
Hmmm. That makes sense. I’ve always identified with Brad Pitt.
My follicles are not senile — that black patch is new. Photo by Betty the Barber
No other part of my body seems to be regressing into youth, and though I’ve talked to my doctor, and done a little research, I can’t find any explanation for my youthful locks. But my other hairs, the grey -- or nearly white -- ones, don’t require much explanation. While I got my first grey hair at age 19, which is unusual, most of us will have a relationship with grey hair by the time we’re in our 40s. When I celebrated that milestone in a basement jazz club on 7th Avenue, the salt was taking over the pepper on my own head. It felt odd to see that the saxophonist, Dexter Gordon, had darker hair than me, even though he was 35 years older.
That could have been due to hair dye, or to the fact that African Americans tend to grow grey later than European Americans. In everyone, grey hair is mostly due to genetics. And it’s a myth that hairs actually turn grey. Like Lady Gaga, they are born that way. A strand of hair grows outward for between one and three years, and then it falls out and a new one replaces it. Every time a hair follicle regenerates a strand of hair it has to revitalize the pigment cells, which eventually wear out -- just like our knuckles, hearts and ears.
That means that when a pigmented hair falls out as we get older, it can be replaced by a grey one, as the hair follicle loses the ability to generate melanocytes, or gets gummed up by melanin debris. This can be due to something called “melanin incontinence,” which I’m mentioning mainly because I like the way it sounds.
Not only do new hairs grow in gray as people age, but they’re also often coarser and harder to manage, as the underlying substructure of the hairs change. While it would seem obvious that the lighter the hair color, the easier it would be to dye, the opposite is true. Course grey hair is both harder to style and less likely to hold a dye. Some have suggested that there is an evolutionary explanation for the coarseness of white hair: it is better insulated, to hold heat on your head. That’s needed because when your hair goes white it doesn’t absorb and trap heat from the sun as well as your dark hair did.
When I picture my hair I see a black and white rainforest covered in mist. Photo by Z S on Unsplash
It’s also true that senile hair (I just love these scientific descriptives) tends to grow faster than naturally pigmented hair. Researchers at the University of Kaiserslautern, in Germany, compared the growth of white beard hairs to darker hairs and found the white ones grew more quickly. White, coarse, unmanageable hair that grows faster -- no wonder a lot of older people have to work harder to look pulled together. I pity myself.
Senile follicles, for sure. Left, President Obama at beginning of his first term. Right, near the end of the second.
You know who I pity more? The presidents of the United States, who seem to turn grey in the years after they take the oath of office. (Well, not Ronald Reagan, whose aides suggested that his dark hair into old age was due to daily use of Brylcreem, or Donald Trump, whose hair seems to have gone a little greyer, though not much, in the last few years). One of the most notable examples is the whitish hair that appeared on President Obama’s head by year eight. You might think that stress turned his hair grey. You would be wrong.
[Point of order: I am using the British spelling of grey, rather than the American spelling of gray, because all my life g-r-a-y has felt like an imposter]
Stress itself doesn’t turn hair grey. But it can cause something called telogen effluvium, which makes your hair fall out and regrow three times faster than it usually does. The hairs that grow back might come from senile follicles, leading it to be grey or white. Aside from telogen effluvium, there are a couple of other conditions that can cause early greying. These include Von Recklinghausen’s disease, which sounds like something I just made up, but isn’t. Also, lack of vitamin b12, and thyroid issues. And let’s not forget genetics. A large study of Latin American people found a correlation between genetics and scalp and face hair. Look at your family tree and see how prevalent, and at what age, people in your family go grey. You’ll probably go grey at that age also.
If you want to hang on to your natural color, and you’re of the nutraceutical ilk, you might try some vitamin b12. Liver and carrots, yum yum, could get that vitamin into your body and keep your hair color intact for a while longer. So could a pill. But watch out this holiday season: drinking heavily can deplete all your b vitamins, so be careful at the holiday parties, unless you want to end up looking like Santa.
White beard hair grows faster.
Evolutionary qualities of hair pigmentation.
More general info (lighter).
Genetic influence on scalp and face hair.
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