“Why does hair turn grey?”

When The Eight-Year-Old asked me why my hair was turning grey this last week, I was so tempted to simply answer with a quick and trite: “Parenthood.”

After all, as this photo clearly shows, my first grey hair popped out shortly after The Eight-Year-Old was born.

My first grey hair. Isn't it adorable? I remember being so excited about my platinum highlights back in those days. Probably because I couldn't actually see them. (Photo: Michael Howell)

My first grey hair. Isn’t it adorable? I remember being so excited about my platinum highlights back in those days. Probably because I couldn’t actually see them. (Photo: Michael Howell)

But even this English major knows that correlation does not equal causation, so I skipped the made-a-million-times-but-new-to-The-Eight-Year-Old jokes and went straight to Asking the iPhone.

First a quick refresher of the parts of the hair.

The lovely flowing stuff you see on The (then) One-Year-Old’s head is called the hair shaft. The part of the hair you can’t see, the bit that anchors the hair to the head, is called the root. The roots of our hair are surrounded by something called the hair follicle.

The follicle is where the magic happens with respect to hair color. Follicles contain pigment cells. Those pigment cells produce stuff called melanin that determines whether our hair is blond like The Eight-Year-Old’s, deep chestnut brown like Younger Mommyo, or a growing-more-dignified-by-the-day blend of brown and gray like Present Day Mommyo.

If melanin sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same stuff that determines our skin color and whether you tan or burn when in the sun. Our bodies are efficient that way.

Anyway, as we age, the pigment cells in our hair follicles gradually die off, taking the melanin and our original hair color with them. Without the melanin to plump up the color, our hair slowly turns grey, silver, white, or in my case, an outrageously gorgeous shade of platinum.*

*Most people dye the grey away, I prefer to pretend my hair is worth its weight in bling. It’s called coping, people, and it’s easier to fit into my schedule than a visit to the hairdresser.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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