It’s estimated that half of adults will have gray hair by the time they turn fifty. Now a team of researchers from NYU Grossman School of Medicine has gotten to the root of why our hair turns to silvery shades. The investigators found that the culprit is a type of stem cell called a melanocyte. It’s the major mechanism responsible for bringing pigment to our eyes, skin — and our hair color.

The researchers discovered that as we age, melanocytes lose their ability to move between growth compartments (or “bulges”) in our hair follicles. The result? The loss of mobility causes hair to start to gray. But that’s only the beginning of the graying process. As our hair continues to age and regrows again and again, more melanocytes become stuck in the hair follicle bulge. This makes it impossible for the cells to mature into pigment-producers.

The discovery may make it possible to restore the ability of melanocytes to move back to their growth compartments, potentially reversing or even preventing, hair from graying.

The good news is that because of their discovery, the researchers believe that restoring the ability of melanocytes to move, or moving them back to their growth compartments, could either potentially reverse, or even prevent, our hair from graying.

The team of NYU researchers focused their work on using the cells in the skin of mice whose hair was physically aged by plucking and forced regrowth. This made a big difference: the number of hair follicles with melanocytes lodged in the follicle bulge increased from 15 percent before the plucking to more than three times that after forced aging. The cells remained unable to regenerate or mature into pigment-producing melanocytes.

On the other hand, those melanocytes that continued to move back and forth between the follicle bulge and hair germ maintained their ability to regenerate as melanocytes, producing pigment over the entire 2-year study period.

“Our study adds to our basic understanding of how melanocyte stem cells work to color hair,” lead investigator Qi Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone Health, said in a press release. “The newfound mechanisms raise the possibility that the same fixed positioning of melanocyte stem cells may exist in humans. If so, it presents a potential pathway for reversing or preventing the graying of human hair by helping jammed cells to move again between developing hair follicle compartments.”

In the future, the research team plans to investigate the possibility of either restoring motility of melanocytes, or of physically moving them back to their germ compartment, where they are able to produce pigment.

Meanwhile, since gray hair tends to be drier than pigmented locks, here are some tips on how to keep you and your aging hair happy and healthy:

  • Gray hair has reduced strength and elasticity compared to naturally-pigmented hair so treat it especially gingerly and avoid styling it with heat and harsh chemicals.
  • Use a protein treatment every 4 to 6 weeks to give your locks a moisturizing boost.
  • Avoid hair products containing mineral oil which weighs your hair down and doesn’t allow moisturizing products to do their magic. Check labels and avoid any hair products, including shampoos, that contain sulfates which can strip your hair of moisture.
  • Be extra careful about exposing your hair to UV rays which is especially damaging to gray hair. Wear hats or scarfs to protect your hair.
  • Until the researchers can reverse or stop graying, try to embrace your inner and outer silver fox. Wear your grays with pride.

The study is published in Nature.