What Causes Grey Hair: The Oxidative Stress Theory Of Greying (Free Radical Damage)


Free radical are those pesky little hyper reactive compounds that ravages the cells stealing hydrogen molecules and can contribute to greying.


(Part One of a Two Part Review of Oxidative Stress Theory For Grey Hair)

From skincare products encouraging us to protect ourselves from harmful free radicals to diets meant to purge us from these cell-damaging entities, it seems as though our society is constantly on the defensive against free radicals. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, here we come to warn you that free radicals can cause grey hair.

That’s right! Free radicals aren’t just responsible for poor diets and tired-looking skin: they’re also directly behind the grey hair strands that are sprouting on your head.


From Wikipedia:

The free-radical theory of aging (FRTA) states that organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. A free radical is any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell. While a few free radicals such as melanin are not chemically reactive, most biologically-relevant free radicals are highly reactive. For most biological structures, free radical damage is closely associated with oxidative damage.

Antioxidants are reducing agents, and limit oxidative damage to biological structures by passivating free radicals.

Strictly speaking, the free radical theory is only concerned with free radicals such as superoxide ( O2- ), but it has since been expanded to encompass oxidative damage from reactive oxygen species such as H2O2, or OH-.

Underneath those grey hair lies a battle that our bodies wage every day. On the one hand, we have our antioxidants (comprised of vitamins, proteins and enzymes), which protect our body against cellular damage. On the other hand, we have pro-oxidants (or free radicals), which make up a typical component of modern life. From pollution and smoking to poor diets and a lack of exercise, a build-up of these pro-oxidants result in an imbalance within the body, otherwise known as oxidative stress.

As far as your grey hair is concerned, oxidative stress can wreak havoc on your ability to restore your locks to their natural color and luster.

So how does oxidative stress cause grey hair?

Each tiny follicle on your head is involved in a dynamic hair growth cycle, in which the follicle is either in a long period of growth (the anagen stage), in a period of rest (the telogen stage) or in a transitional period between the two (the catagen stage). The anagen stage is the most active part of the hair growth cycle, and can be divided into six distinct parts. For the purpose of grey hair and oxidative stress theory, we’ll focus on anagen stage III and anagen stage IV.

Hair follicle melanocytes (specialized cells which directly control the pigment of your hair) reach their peak of growth during anagen stage III. As the melanocytes proliferate, they become aligned in the base of the hair follicle bulb – also known as the papilla cavity – and begin the transition to anagen stage IV, which marks the hair pigmentation process.

According to biomedical and pathology researchers from the UK, US and Germany, oxidative stress directly impacts melanocyte growth during the anagen stage III process. An excess of pro-oxidants build up in the papilla cavity and overwhelm the melanocytes, thus killing off these specialized cells. As the hair follicle moves into anagen stage IV, there are no longer any melanocytes to pigment the hair, resulting in grey hair strands.

This grey hair follicle is none other than the grey hair strand that’s currently sprouting from your scalp.

Don’t resign yourself to grey hair just yet. While this process might seem like the final word on hair pigmentation, it stands to reason that if oxidative stress can cause melanocyte death, then the reduction of oxidative stress can allow these specialized cells to re-emerge and kick-start the hair pigmentation process all over again. Do you lead a stressful lifestyle that is contributing to rapid greying? If so we can help.

Part Two: Oxidative Stress: Hydrogen Peroxide & Grey Hair.

Be sure to read all the related articles appearing AFTER the “comment block” below to get the best understanding on why we grey.


  1. Towards a “free radical theory of graying”: melanocyte apoptosis in the aging human hair follicle is an indicator of oxidative stress induced tissue damage. Klapp, B. F., Birch-Machin, M. A., and Peters, E. M. (2006) FASEB J. 20, 1567–1569
  2. “Oxygen Radicals and Human Disease.” C. E. CROSS, B. HALLIWELL, E. T. BORISH, W. A. PRYOR, B. N. AMES, R. L. SAUL, J. M. McCORD, and D. HARMAN. Ann Intern Med, October 1, 1987; 107(4): 526 – 545.
  3. “The Fate of Hair Follicle Melanocytes During the Hair Growth Cycle.” TOBIN DJ, SLOMINSKI A, BOTCHKAREV V et all (1999).J Investig Dermatol Symp Proc 4.323-332.

IMPORTANT: There are millions of folks just like you suffering with premature greying who are looking for information to assist them to figure it all out. You were fortunate enough to find our website and our information. If this information was useful to you, please help others to find it also by sharing this page. You can do so simply by clicking on one of the social share buttons at the end of this post thereby liking or +1 this page.


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About Frederica Hegney

Frederica Hegney is Editor of the Grey Defence blog. Where she focuses on topic around greying and its causes.
This entry was posted in Research Inspired Articles and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What Causes Grey Hair: The Oxidative Stress Theory Of Greying (Free Radical Damage)

  1. Corporate Communications says:

    Thanks for the heads up. We will look into that immediately.

  2. Ansley says:

    i tried to use your RSSFeed but feed site displays me some crazy xml errors.


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