What Causes Grey Hair: The Oxidative Stress Theory of Greying (Hydrogen Peroxide Damage)


Every time we breath, are stressed or are in pain, we produce free radicals. To protect themselves, our cells turn free radicals into hydrogen peroxide. The theory of Oxidative Stress explains this greying mechanism.


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

It’s no secret that spotting your first grey hair can be a stressful event – and news stories and articles aren’t making it much better. From perpetuating myths on fighting grey hair (“Drink carrot juice!”; “Don’t pluck the hair strands!”) to the raging debate on whether to go faux or let the silver strands go, grey hair is rife with anxiety, confusion and stress.

We’re here to tell you to stop stressing. Understanding the origins of your grey can help you debunk irresponsible grey hair myths and take your anxiety down a few notches – and did we mention that stress only aggravates your greying?

Our bodies are constantly on the look-out for free radicals, also known as pro-oxidants. When harmful free radicals enter our bodies (due to exposure from pollution, poor dieting, lack of exercise and smoking), specialized enzymes, proteins and vitamins known as antioxidants seek out these damaging radicals and destroy them. However, if the body is exposed to an overwhelming amount of free radicals, the antioxidants cannot destroy all of the pro-oxidants; thus, oxidative stress occurs.

As discussed in Part 1 Grey Hair Free Radicals free radicals in and of themselves can damage the hair follicle and leads to greying. In this second part we will look at a special class of oxygen based free radicals called Superoxides and see how they wreak havoc via the hydrogen peroxide pathway.

Super Oxides are free radicals that results from metabolic activity within the body such as our reaction to stress. The body has evolved an elegant method of dealing with these Super Oxides; first the body unleashes a class of enzymes called Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) that helps to convert these Superoxides into water and hydrogen peroxide. Now in small concentrations hydrogen peroxide is easily broken down into hydrogen and water by another class of enzymes called Peroxidases. The key peroxidases employed by the body are the enzymes Glutathione Peroxidase and Catalase.

However, in situations of prolonged stress, the amount of hydrogen peroxide being created overwhelms the body’s ability to break it down leading to oxidative stress – and your grey hair. The hydrogen peroxide builds up throughout the body, including within papillary cavities under the epidermis of the scalp. These cavities are where hair follicles originate, and also where specialized cells – known as melanocyte produces melanin for the hair strand.

The hair growth cycle has three main stages, which are known as the anagen stage (the growth stage), the telogen stage (where the follicle is at a period of rest) and the catagen stage (the transitional period between the former stages). The anagen stage can be reduced into six parts; however, melanocyte plays their most important role in the third and fourth stages. During anagen stage III, melanocyte start to grow and accumulate in the papillary cavities; when the hair follicle starts to grow towards the epidermis, the melanocyte pigments the hair.

Now while the hair grows in the anagen phase, the accumulated hydrogen peroxide sits in the papillary cavity where it bleaches the hair as it grows – no different than if we bleached your hair yourself with a bottle of bleach. Over time it’s also possible for the melanocyte cells to die off because the hydrogen peroxide interact with other crucial enzymes such as MSRA and MSRB and deactivate them preventing the hair follicles from repairing itself leading to other aspects of aging hair such as thinning and weak/brittle hairs leading to whole lot of grey.

Did you greing start in your mid to late 30s or later? If so we can help.


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


  1. Methionine Sulfoxide Reductases A and B Are Deactivated by Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) in the Epidermis of Patients with Vitiligo. Karin U Schallreuter1,2, Katharina Rübsam2, Nicholas C J Gibbons1,2, Derek J Maitland3, Bhaven Chavan, Carsten Zothner Hartmut Rokos and John M Wood
  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. Oxidative stress in the human epidermis. Schallreuter KU. G Ital Dermatol Venereol 140: 505-14
  4. “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.
  5. 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

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.
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