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July 12th, 2013

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12:54 pm - Geezerology
I've surprised myself a little with how I've felt about gray hair as I've gotten older. But then, the gray hairs have surprised me with how quixotic they've been. My beard started going gray first, and there's a lot of gray there. Frankly, I didn't like it. A salt-and-pepper chin but my original very dark brown on the sides of my head looked rather silly to me. The top of my head doesn't have much hair left, but the fact that there are a few still hanging on is even less esthetically acceptable to me. Stop looking straggly and pathetic! Give up! Let go! But I digress.

Now my temples are going gray, and I'm fine with that. It looks fairly elegant and distinguished to me. Also, I'm old enough that I figure I probably ought to have gray hair by now anyway. Which of course means I'm way past due, because how many of us ever think we should have started getting gray hair when we started getting gray hair? Hardly surprising, though. When I think about "people with gray hair," my brain is more or less sampling everybody I know, and comes back with an average age of fifty to sixty or so. I point out to it that it should only include people who are starting to turn gray, and it still gives me forty-five to fifty.

Doing a bit of research for this post, by the way, turned up this rather fascinating report (check me out, citing the original research, who's da dude? Me!) which I found through an article in a British newspaper: "The researchers set out to test a widely-accepted “rule of thumb” in the cosmetics industry, that the age of 50, 50 per cent of the population had at least 50 per cent grey hair. In fact, the new study found that less than a quarter of those taking part had that much grey hair at that age. In many parts of the world, it was a substantially lower proportion."

Now, it's hardly fair to compare when you spot your own first gray hair to the age your brain hands you for when it notices other people with gray hair. First of all, we're probably going to notice our own much earlier than somebody else's. We're probably looking a lot more closely at our own, and we tend to be more critical of our own appearance. On top of that, because the typical human thought patterns are already tricking many of us into thinking we're going gray earlier than we "ought to," many of us dye it to hide the gray, thus skewing the perceived age related to gray hair upwards even further.

My gray hairs started appearing in my late 30's, which apparently was just little bit behind the average for Caucasian men, and for the most part, the hair follicles seem to be switching over to gray fairly slowly. At the rate I'm going, I probably won't be predominantly gray on my head until I'm in my mid to late 60's.

So here I am, pretty much copacetic with gray hairs showing up on my head right by my ears. Then one day I find a gray hair on my chest. This should not have surprised me in the slightest, but I found myself quite annoyed! It's particularly silly since I don't even particularly like my chest hair, so if it wants to camoflage itself against my pale epidermis, I ought to be glad. But no, I was offended, and promptly plucked the dang thing. Then I had pretty much the same reaction when I found one in one of my eyebrows. "I don't think so!" {poit!}

I mentioned this a few months ago to some friends, and one of them agreed that some gray hairs were more disturbing/offensive than others, and managed to rather gracefully imply that the ones that had bothered them the most were ironically located where they were very unlikely to be seen. I'd had the same reaction myself, but I was at a loss as to how to say that in polite company, so I'd waited to raise the topic until my eyebrow provided a more genteel example.

So I know it's not just me, and yet, how ridiculous is that? I should be pleased if the hairs that are normally covered by clothing turn gray, on the grounds that I'm probably going to go gray at a certain rate, but yea, let's keep the most visible hair dark and put the gray hair where it doesn't show.

Now I have not really tried to seriously manage gray hairs by pulling them out. I do pluck them out now and then, but I know that the end result is either giving up in exhaustion as the rate increases, or looking as if I have mange. But I have pulled a few now and then, and what I have found is rather perplexing. That eyebrow hair had a white tip. The majority of the pubic hairs have been white at the end, and dark at the base. The melanocytes decide to retire and let the hair grow in white, and then, what, Moe comes along and slaps them, and they get back to work?

The Interwebs were less than helpful for this. Lots of people report hair that shows spontaneous repigmentation, with nearly as many 'helpful' respondents claiming it must be due to diet, or sun bleaching, or whatever, because "real" gray hair doesn't change back. PubMed wasn't very helpful, either. I turned up just one clear reference: "Indeed, it is not too uncommon to see spontaneous repigmentation along the same individual hair shaft in early canities." ('Graying: gerontobiology of the hair follicle pigmentary unit.' Exp Gerontol. 2001 Jan;36(1):29-54.) All remaining search results were related to vitiligo, not to age-related pigment changes. BTW, "canities" means "grayness or whiteness of the hair."

The hair cycle, as you might know, is that a follicle spends some amount of time manufacturing a hair, then takes a few weeks (or months) off. When the rest period is over, it releases the hair and begins growing a new one. Arm hairs (for example) have a short growth phase and a long rest phase, which is why they're so much shorter than head hair.

So here I am, finding hair follicles that shut down pigment production, and then start it back up again partway through the job. I would love to know what that follicle does with the next hair that it grows. Does it stay white next time? Is it back to brown? Does it restart partway through, but maybe later?

I have no doubt that there are commercial research labs working on how to restart hair follicle melanocyte activity, but we probably won't hear much about it until they've got some results.

In the mean time, I guess I'll just have to deal with my own hair follicles trying to freak me out. Ah, Mistress Biology, you are a wacky thing indeed.
Current Mood: Amused

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[User Picture]
Date:July 13th, 2013 03:53 pm (UTC)
I like the silver in your beard. (It's not gray; it's white or silver. I prefer silver as an aesthetic concept, even if I dye mine away.) But then, I've always liked a little silver around the muzzle in my men. :-) That salt-and-peppery look adds texture to the beard and to the face, like adding a sugar frost. Why not see it as a style thing; you have such style--why not take advantage of it rather than being uncomfortable with it? And the contrast of the silver and black is quite striking.

As for the part-silver-and-back-to-black thing, think of yourself as a tabby cat. I'm sure you've seen tabby strands of fur, with their bands of color. Your follicles are trying to stripe you--and that's pretty stylish too. Just ask the cats. :-)

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