How Aging Affects Your Hair

It's all about location and texture

If your hair has you feeling more like Rumpelstiltskin than Rapunzel these days, 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 where it grows - too little in some places, too much in others - occur over time.

Here's the science behind several common signs of hair aging and how you can fix them.

Close up smiling senior woman looking over shoulder
Hero Images/Getty Images

Each strand of hair is made of the strengthening protein keratin and is surrounded by an outer layer of overlapping sheets, like roof shingles, that make up the cuticle. The only living part of the hair exists inside the hair follicle in the epidermis and dermis, which contains some of the fastest-growing cells in the body. The hair you can see is actually dead.

Hair aging can be caused by microscopic, biochemical or hormonal changes that affect the follicle or environmental factors that cause wear and tear on the hair itself.


Changes in Thickness & Texture

A single hair lives approximately 4 to 5 years. Given that hair grows on average a little less than half an inch per month, hair that is 12 inches in length has seen almost 3 year’s worth of ultraviolet light, friction from brushing, heat from blow dryers, curling irons and flat irons, and chemical exposure through coloring, perming or straightening.

It's no wonder that hair wear and tear, or "weathering," results. Cuticle cells become raised and softened, making the hair appear rougher and more prone to breakage. Over time, hair follicles themselves gradually produce thinner, smaller hairs, or none at all. This is referred to as senescent alopecia, although it may simply be a part of the natural aging process.

What You Can Do

The anti-aging business is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are many products that claim to counteract the effects of aging on hair. They include humectants, which bind moisture to the cuticle, making it appear smoother, and hair conditioners that seal the cuticle. There are also products that provide hair with antioxidants and protect against UV light. Since hair is technically dead after it emerges from the follicle, these cosmetic fixes tend to work by modifying the appearance of each strand rather than changing the structure.

In addition to incorporating the use of some of the aforementioned products, you should also avoid excessive use of heat on your hair. Limit the use of hot tools like curling irons and flat irons. When blow-drying, keep the dryer at least 6 to 12 inches away from your head.

How Hair Turns Gray

The exact process of going gray is not well understood, although it is known that hair turns gray when melanin - the pigment that gives our hair and skin color - stops being produced. Generally the lighter your skin, the sooner your hair will turn gray. Caucasians typically start to gray in the early 30s. It often occurs 10 years later for those with darker skin.

The onset of graying hair is largely determined by genetics. As dermatology researcher Ralph Trueb writes in his paper "The Aging of Hair": "By 50 years of age, 50% of people have 50% gray hair," regardless of sex and initial hair color. Body hair - eyebrows, pubic and chest hair - usually grays much later than hair on the scalp.

One theory chalks up the cause of graying to oxidative stress, one of the major theories of aging. Oxidative stress is a condition that occurs when an excess of free radicals are produced as new hairs are formed, which subsequently damages the pigment-creating cellular structures within the follicle. This process may also explain why many people notice that their hair becomes coarser and tougher to manage as it grays since the cells that create melanin are closely connected to the ones that build the keratin hair shaft.

What You Can Do

If letting your hair go au naturel doesn’t appeal to you, you have a variety of coloring options. Reverse highlights put streaks of darker color back into gray hair. Permanent dyes work by creating colored molecules within the hair shaft and can withstand repeated washing. Semi-permanent colors can last between six and 10 shampoos, as they are made up of small molecules that penetrate the hair cuticle.

If you're serious about coloring your hair, there needs to be some element of permanence. Temporary tints look nice at first, but they are not absorbed by the cuticle and are easily washed out.

Thinning Hair & Baldness

For many men - whether hair loss is known by its scientific name, androgenetic alopecia, or simply as male-pattern baldness - it’s unwelcome news. Typically, hair is first lost on the top of the head or at the temples. By age 60, 2/3 of males have significant hair loss. It is believed that men who lose their hair have hair follicles that are predisposed to produce smaller and less visible vellus hair over time as a result of hormonal changes. Smoking may also play a role in male-pattern baldness.

Women may experience "female-pattern" baldness as they age, resulting in thinning hair and a visible scalp. It may be due to genetics, shifting levels in "male" hormones, or androgens, vitamin deficiencies or certain health conditions.

What You Can Do

Currently, there is no cure for baldness. Some treatments aim to stimulate the growth of new, more visible hair and include topical minoxidil (Rogaine) and Finasteride, which is taken orally. For women, the only treatment approved by the FDA is minoxidil.

hair transplant involves grafting tiny segments or plugs of healthy scalp from thicker patches of hair to the balding area. It's an expensive solution that requires many treatments, but the results are permanent.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes too much hair is the issue. Hirsutism is a condition in which hair starts to appear on a woman's body in areas that are associated with male body hair: the face, neck, chest, thighs and back. It's caused by genetics, aging, and certain medications.

Though hirsutism is often a harmless condition, it can be embarrassing for women. In rare cases, it's a sign of a tumor in the adrenal gland or ovary.

What You Can Do

If temporary solutions like tweezing, waxing and depilatories aren't working for you, see your doctor. More involved hair removal techniques include laser therapy and electrolysis.


Medline Plus. "Aging Changes in Hair and Nails." U.S. National Library of Medicine. NIH Public Information Sheet.

Medline Plus. "Female pattern baldness." U.S. National Library of Medicine. NIH Public Information Sheet.

Ralph M. Trueb. "Aging of Hair." Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Volume 4, Issue 2, pages 60-72, June 2005.


Continue Reading