If your child has ever seen a picture of a grandparent as a youngster and wondered what made their hair go from dark to light, join us as we untangle the hair-raising truth about going gray.

Each hair on our head consists of two parts: a root and a shaft. The root keeps the hairs on our head by anchoring them to our scalp. The shaft is the “long” colored part of hair we see growing on our heads. Each root of hair is nested in a tube-like follicle. Follicles contain special kinds of pigment cells that produce a chemical called melanin.

In addition to hair color, melanin is also responsible for the color of your skin and eyes. People who have darker skin have a higher concentration of melanin than those with fair skin.

If you have ever had a suntan, you’ve already experienced melanin in action. One of its important jobs is to help absorb harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun and protect our cells from damage. Though melanin does a great job, it isn’t perfect, which is why it is important to always wear sunscreen when you head outdoors.

When it comes to hair, whether you’re a blonde, brunette, redhead — or somewhere in between — you can thank melanin. As a person ages, the pigment cells in the hair follicles begin to die. Much like a suntan begins to fade after a few days, when there are fewer pigment cells in the hair follicle, hair color begins to fade too.

In many older adults, this fading gives the hair a transparent color, appearing silver, white or gray to the human eye. Though gray hairs are most noticeable in those with dark hair due to the contrast, people with lighter hair are equally likely to go gray.

What does this mean for a youngster? There is no way to know exactly when you will discover your first gray hair. What we do know is that going gray is influenced by our genetics. This means you can roughly estimate based on the age your parents and grandparents were when their hair first started to change.

 

16 Join the Discussion

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  1. My friend and her daughter had a great conversation about this Wonder. They decided that they could do their own time-lapse photography at home. However, my friend’s daughter said, “Let’s do it for three days.” Of course, my friend found that very comical, but that’s what children’s learning is all about. They raise these ideas, often half-baked, that need a parent’s nudging to make them concrete and real. I have no doubt that they’ll figure it out and become time-lapse photography experts!

  2. Sparky, thanks for sharing that story. We have no doubt they’ll figure it out and become time-lapse photography experts:-)

  3. I have seen a picture of my grandma she use to have brown hair but now it’s gray. I wonder why this is a good observation as my opinion.

    • Great observation, Jenny! We think it’s fun to look at photos from times past and see how the people in them have grown and changed! :-)

    • We think it’s GREAT that you have a lot of Wonders, Jenny! We hope you’ll share them with us…maybe they’ll become future Wonders of the Day!

      Did you know you can let us know what you’re wondering about any time of the day? Just click on the “nominate a wonder” link at the top of this page (and every page in Wonderopolis.org) and fill out the form to tell us what you’re wondering! It’s a LOT of fun! :-)

    • We think that’s AWESOME x AWESOME = AWESOME, Wonder Girl! Thank you for being a WONDERful Wonder Friend and letting us know what you are WONDERing about! :-)

    • It’s so much fun to learn something new with a great Wonder Friend like you! Thanks for visiting us today, Wonder Friend! :)

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed learning something new with us, Mariam! We love WONDERing with awesome Wonder Friends… just like you! Thanks for sharing your comment! :)

    • That’s a great WONDER dustin! Maybe you could find more information about pigment cells at your library. We are glad you enjoyed this WONDER! Have a WONDERful day!

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why does your hair change color over time?
  • What chemical in your body determines the color of your hair, skin and eyes?
  • How can you watch time pass in an instant?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Though it will likely be a long time before your little one has to worry about going gray, a fun way to document growing up is by creating a “photo a day” time-lapse video together. It may not be time travel, but you will sure feel like it when you see the results.

Time-lapse videos are made up of a lot of photos of the same thing over an extended period of time. These photos are then smushed together in a video and played back in a much shorter timeframe. Voila! A time-lapse is born. All you need is a camera… and a lot of patience.

Check out this neat photo-a-day time-lapse video for inspiration, and watch as time — and life — move before your eyes.

Try this at home! You can create a quick and easy time-lapse video with QuickTime Player, which can be downloaded for free for both Windows and Mac. It’s pretty easy to do if you follow these steps:

1. Gather your time-lapse photos and put them in one folder on your computer.
2. In QuickTime, go to File and select Open Image Sequence.
3. Browse to the folder of photos, and select the first photo.
4. Choose how many photos per second.
5. Hit Save!

 

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Wonder What’s Next?

Gray hair, prepare to meet “Black Beard,” one of the most infamous pirates in the history books. Sail back to Wonderopolis tomorrow to take the helm and try your hand at a pirate’s life.

Upload a Photo or Paste the URL of a YouTube or SchoolTube Video.