There's something to be said for turning into a silver fox. They're distinguished. Dapper. And … 25?
Indeed. Even teens and young adults can go gray, from a few streaks here and there to a full-on head of white.
Anne Kreamer was in her 20s when she started noticing gray strands. She spent 20 years concealing it with colors like magenta, until a eureka moment hit when she took a second look at a photo of herself. She returned to her gray roots and says she won't touch hair dye again.
"We live in very rough economic times—in an ageist culture," says Kreamer, author of Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else that Really Matters. "Each person has to make their own decision at different points in their lives. If you're 40 and totally gray and unemployed, you might make a different decision than if you're 25 and have just a few gray strands, or if you're 55 and a stay-at-home writer."
[See: Do's and Don'ts of Healthy Hair.]
The bad news: The premature graying problem is largely genetic. Hair follicles contain pigment cells that produce melanin, which gives your tresses their color. When your body stops generating melanin, hair presents itself as gray, white, or silver. (Melanin also provides moisture, so when less is produced, hair becomes brittle and loses its bounce.) "If your parents or grandparents grayed at an early age, you probably will too," says David Bank, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. "There's not much you can do to stop genetics."
Race and ethnicity play a role in the graying timeline, too: Whites typically start to notice gray strands around age 35, while African-Americans tend to be 40 when it begins. About 50 percent of people have half a head of gray by the time they're 50, says Jeffrey Benabio, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, Calif.
Still, more tangible factors could be at play. Poor nutrition, for example, is thought to affect the production of melanin. Specifically, that means getting too little protein, vitamin B12, and the amino acid phenylalanine. Maintaining a balanced, healthy diet could help keep color robust. (As for that old theory that stress triggers gray, though? No scientific proof supports it.)
Occasionally, an underlying medical condition could be to blame. "Some autoimmune and genetic conditions are linked to premature graying," Benabio says. Check with a doctor to make sure you don't have a thyroid disorder; vitiligo, which causes areas of the skin and hair to become white; or anemia.
While there's not much you can do to stop or slow the graying process, you can decide how to deal with it: keep it, get rid of it, spruce it up. "Age doesn't matter when you see those first gray strands," says Anne Marie Barros, a master colorist at Gerard Bollei Salon in New York. "But unlike the limited, damaging choices of yesteryear, today's treatments range from the understated to the dramatic and everything in between. Most of my younger clients start to have fun with the range of choices, which cancels out their initial angst."
Maura Kelly was 10 years old when she spotted her first white hairs. By the time she was in high school, she had a white streak that defined her hip-length locks. "I was young enough that it didn't make me look old—it made me look unusual," says Kelly, author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Dating. "I would have been perfectly happy to keep it forever, if only it had behaved itself and stayed a streak. But in my 20s, it went from being a single streak to three streaks, and then to salt-and-pepper. People started to think I was 10 years older than I was, which upset me." So began her relationship with hair dye—and it's turned into a long-term one. "I loathe having to deal with it," she says. "I'm pretty low maintenance, and dyeing is by far the biggest beauty hassle in my life."