What is melanin?

We often categorise our body’s skin into a certain skin tone, more commonly our skin colour. The factor that decides it is called melanin. Similarly, have you ever wondered what gives our hair its natural colour? This is also decided by the presence of melanin. To dig deeper about melanin in the hair and how one can treat the loss of melanin, that is greying hair, we consulted Dr. Niketa Sonavane, Celebrity Dermatologist and Founder of Ambrosia Aesthetics, Mumbai.

She begins by explaining, “Melanin is a natural pigment that gives colour to your hair. It is produced by melanocytes, which are specialised cells that produce this pigment. They are present in the hair follicles or hair roots under the surface of your scalp.”

The melanocyte cells actively inject pigment (melanin) into keratin-containing cells as the hair grows. The formation of melanin in the hair begins before birth and continues through most of your life. Its distribution, type, and amount in the middle layer of the hair shaft or cortex determines the natural colour of our hair. It is interesting to note here, the colour of our hair before it emerges out of the scalp’s surface is white. But, with the gradual growth of hair strands, melanocytes take up the job to deliver melanin into hair cells, which lend a dark colour to your hair.

 

Types of melanin in the hair

Types of melanin in the hair

As Dr. Sonavane points out rightly, “There are only two types of pigments in the hair, dark (eumelanin) and light (pheomelanin).” The two pigments or melanocyte cells combine together to form a wide range of hair colours. One can easily distinguish the natural hair colours into eumelanin and pheomelanin – while the former is responsible for darker pigments like black, dark brown or brunette, the latter is what gives a light brown, yellow, golden blonde, red, ginger or white tone to the hair.

There are internal factors that dominantly influence hair colour such as genes, hormones and even age. As for the external or environmental factors that can affect hair colour, climate, pollution and chemical exposure are a few to pay attention to.

 

Causes of loss of melanin in the hair

Causes of loss of melanin in the hair

Melanin is an important part of our hair. It shields it from the sun’s harmful UV rays and protects it from drying and becoming brittle. This is why, if you’ll notice, grey hair that has very low levels of melanin is often brittle in texture. The strength of melanocytes (melanin) production reduces as one grows older. And as you may guess, the continued infusion of dark melanin pigments into one’s hair weakens too, which eventually and naturally causes hair to turn white.

Overall, there are some key factors that cause loss of melanin in the hair. We list them all ahead.

1. Ageing

Dr. Sonavane explains, “Men’s hair starts greying around the age of 30, while women’s hair has a few more years to turn grey, let’s say approximately till the age of 35.” But ageing is not the only reason for black hair to turn white. As mentioned above, some external, as well as diet-related causes, are linked to loss of melanin in the hair as well.

2. Genetic

Then, there is a common phenomenon of melanin loss in the hair, called premature ageing or greying of hair that can occur in younger people, including children. The cause of premature grey (or white) hair is generally autoimmune and genetic.

3. Chemical hair products

Using harsh chemical-laden products on your hair can contribute to grey or white hair too. Avoid using ingredients such as SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate), parabens, alcohol, silicones and artificial colours on your hair. It could be present in shampoos, conditioners, masks and so on. Another harmful chemical, hydrogen peroxide, which is generally used as a hair bleaching agent, which works by breaking down melanin cells in the hair, also causes hair greying.

4. Diets

According to Ayurveda, our body has either one of the three doshas – vata, kapha or pitta. To maintain its balance, an individual must consume a moderate meal that has all kinds of taste profiles such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy and astringent. Excess consumption or lack of any taste is not good for your skin and hair. Dr. Sonavane says, “Some causes of premature hair greying are linked to nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron and copper deficiency and severe protein malnutrition.”

5. Skin and hormonal conditions

Vitiligo could also be a reason for greying hair. It is a skin condition that leads to white patches on otherwise healthy-looking skin, due to loss or death of melanocyte cells. Menopause, alterations in thyroid hormone levels or a thyroid disorder can also reduce the production of melanocytes in the hair, hence causing grey hair.

6. Smoking

Various studies show that smoking is one of the major reasons for hair to turn grey. Not only do the toxins in cigarettes affect the hair follicles, but they are also known to compress the body’s blood vessels too, which in turn affects the blood flow to the hair follicles and hampers the production of melanin, leading to grey hair.  

 

Ingredients to increase melanin in the hair

Ingredients to increase melanin in the hair

1. Bhringraj

Bhringraj is easily accessible in the form of oils or powders. Known to have hair darkening benefits and prevent greying, it is an incredible ingredient to include in your everyday hair routine and maintain a strong melanin factor in the hair.

2. Gooseberries

Commonly known as amla in India, gooseberries are your hair’s best friend when it comes to growth and health of the hair and avoiding premature greying. Rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, amla can be consumed in your diet and can also be used in the form of hair oils and masks.

3. Black Tea

Black tea is popular amongst hair care buffs for its benefits of hair darkening and adding shine to tresses. Its natural properties of antioxidants and tannic acid make it a great catch to avoid early ageing of hair.

 

Foods to increase melanin in the hair

Foods to increase melanin in the hair

It is crucial to note that every individual has to go through the phase of experiencing white hair at one point in time and that cannot be avoided because it is natural and comes with age. However, eating well-balanced meals that promote good health of the body and skin is a safe and assured way to also maintain your hair’s robust life and avoid premature ageing.

  • Antioxidant-rich foods such as dark chocolate, types of berries and leafy vegetables count as extremely healthy items to include in your daily food diet to protect your cells from free radical damage and increase melanin production in the hair.
  • Copper-rich foods such as various kinds of nuts, mushrooms and meat liver also promote follicular melanin synthesis.
  • Sources of vitamin A, C, and E including carrots, papaya, eggs, citrus fruits, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts and pistachios can improve the health of your hair.
  • B6 and B12 vitamins have been found to stimulate the production of enzymes in the hair follicles that increase metabolism of hair proteins (keratin and melanin). While vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, promotes healthy hair growth by increasing red blood cell production. So, adding options of beetroot, broccoli, sprouts, eggs, fish, cheese, soy products, starchy vegetables works well for increasing melanin in the hair.

 

Watch out for side effects!

Watch out for side effects!

As they say, excess of anything can cause harm, and so excess melanin cells can also prove to be harmful to your skin and hair. Increased levels of melanocyte cells (melanin pigments) can lead to hyperpigmentation and the emergence of spots on skin. Hence, remember to consult your doctor before regulating your diet with too many vitamins, calcium or antioxidant-rich foods and supplements.

 

Can medical treatments reverse loss of melanin in the hair

Can medical treatments reverse loss of melanin in the hair?

When asked about what kind of medical treatments can help reverse the loss of melanin or white hair damage, Dr. Sonavane said, “Grey hair is a natural part of the ageing process and it affects different people at different ages. Certain health conditions and lifestyle factors (such as smoking and stress) may contribute to greying sooner. But there are currently no effective medical treatments available to reverse or prevent grey hair. More research is needed to investigate this further.”