Going gray? Scientists uncover the root cause
Attention parents: It's not your kids that are making you go gray. Your hair is simply building up too much hydrogen peroxide.
Bottle-blondes may be a fan, but hydrogen peroxide, which is produced naturally in the human body, interferes with melanin, the pigment that colors our hair and skin.
The body also produces the enzyme catalase, which breaks down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Or at least it does for a while. As we age, catalase production tails off, leaving nothing to transform the hydrogen peroxide into chemicals the body can release.
So, as hydrogen peroxide builds up, we go gray, concluded researchers at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, who last week published the results of a study in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's online journal.
Reversing the process
"This new insight could open new strategies for intervention and reversal of the hair graying process," wrote the study's lead author John Wood, who died last month.
The studies were based on analysis of cell cultures of human hair follicles.
In addition to lacking catalase, the follicles of gray-haired people also had far fewer hair-repair enzymes, which in turn drove down production of melanin, the scientists found.
Genetics play a role as well, causing some people, such as Caucasians, to gray earlier than others, like Asians.
Scientists suspect the same mechanism also may be responsible for a condition known as vitiligo, where white spots appear in the skin.
"It gives you insight into how we age in general," Gerald Weissmann, professor of medicine at New York University, told Discovery News. "They got the molecular basis of aging down pat."
Skin cells produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide as part of the body's oxygen cycle. The chemical serves to kill bacteria.
Scientists are hopeful there may be a way to remix the chemical soup to keep color in our hair, which no doubt is of interest to a hair-care industry that will be worth about $42.5 billion worldwide by 2010, according to a market report published last year by Global Industry Analysts.
Weissmann predicts it won't be long before products to remove hydrogen peroxide from the hair — and the body in general — are created.
"The rule goes when basic science is discovered it is quickly followed by a product," he said.