As we grow older several changes take place in our body, some visible, others not so visible. The most obvious one is the hair — and moustache in the case of men — turning grey from jet black. Unfortunately, nowadays it is not just senior citizens who are greying but also those in their twenties or early thirties. Twenty years ago, 18 per cent of adults under the age of 30 had started to grey. According to a recent report, that figure is now close to 32 per cent. Hair care brands have come up with a new mnemonic for grey haired over stressed twenty something — GHOSTS. The first grey hair stresses out GHOSTS even more as the current job market prizes youth — or at least looking youthful — over experience.
The age at which one starts to grey is determined genetically. At that age the hair cells stop producing the colouring pigment melanin. This makes the shaft of the hair transparent. Light reflects off it, giving it its white appearance. Not all hairs stop producing melanin simultaneously. The mixed white and normal black makes the hair appear grey.
People who are exposed constantly to pollution and UV rays can get grey hair even before their genetically determined age to grey. The poisonous chemicals in tobacco kill the melanocytes, making smokers go grey before their non-smoking peers. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can also cause premature greying, as can a a peculiar type of anaemia called pernicious anaemia. Thyroid malfunction can also turn hair grey.
Grey hair has been cosmetically unacceptable for centuries. People used all kinds of natural dyes such as henna, indigo, walnut, curry leaves, gooseberries, tea, coffee, hibiscus flowers and arecanut either alone or in combination to colour grey hair. These natural products are used even today. Most, if used consistently, produce a dark brown colour. They are popular as they are inexpensive, can be applied at home, and are considered safe. But some people are allergic to even herbal products.
Hair can also be dyed with commercially available colouring agents. Temporary colours last a single wash. They can be funky colours like pink, blue or green but dark hair will not take these unless it is bleached first. Repeated use of these dyes without proper conditioning can, however, make hair brittle and lustreless.
Permanent hair colouring is the one usually used to disguise grey hair. It is a two-step process. First the hair is lightened using an agent like hydrogen peroxide or ammonia. Then the dye is applied and fixed. The colouring lasts until the hair grows out. This can be anything between 4 to 6 weeks.
Some people are allergic to hair dyes. Redness, itching, burning or skin rashes can occur either immediately or within 48 hours. To prevent this, before applying a dye for the first time, or switching brands, do a patch test. Take a small quantity of dye and apply it to the skin [usually on the inside of the elbow] for a day to see if there is any reaction. Sometimes a person can turn allergic to a product that they have been using safely for many years.
If hair is being coloured at home, it is important to follow the instructions on the package implicitly. Before using the dye, apply Vaseline to the hairline and ears. This will prevent the skin from staining. Always use gloves to apply the colour. Leave it on the hair for the time specified. Then wash it off with water. Apply a conditioner and leave it on for 7-9 minutes. Shampoo the next day.
Most shampoos (particularly the anti-dandruff ones) are harsh and unsuitable for regular use on coloured hair. Special colour safe shampoos and conditioners should be used to preserve the health of hair and minimise fading.
Hair that has been damaged by excessive and improper exposure to chemicals becomes dry, rough and fragile. The only solution is to stop using chemicals and cut off the damaged bit.
Hair colour should also not be used to darken facial hair because its texture is different and also because using traditional hair dyes so close to the nose can be distressing because of the odour of ammonia and other chemicals. The best thing to use is a range of colouring products labelled just for men.
How to delay greying:
Avoid too much exposure to ultraviolet rays
Eat at least 4-5 helpings of fruit and vegetables a day.
Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at email@example.com