Wonder Contributors

We’d like to thank Hailey from Indiana for suggesting we revisit today’s Wonder of the Day!

If you’ve 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 your head consists of two parts: a root and a shaft. The root keeps the hairs on your head by anchoring them to your scalp. The shaft is the “long” colored part of hair you see growing on your head. 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 your 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, or a 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 genetics. This means you can roughly estimate based on the age your parents and grandparents were when their hair first started to change.

24 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 hair turn gray?
  • What chemical determines the color of your hair, skin, and eyes?
  • Why does your hair change color over time?

Wonder Gallery

going grayVimeo Video

Try It Out

We hope you enjoyed today’s color-changing Wonder of the Day! Be sure to explore the following interesting activities with a friend or family member:

  • Do you know anyone with gray hair? Chances are, if you have an older relative or a grandparent, you know someone who has at least a little gray hair. Find a friend or family member with gray hair and ask them about it. Does it bother them? When did their hair start to turn gray? Have they ever colored their hair? Why or why not? Have fun learning more about gray hair from someone who has it!
  • Ever WONDER what you would look like with gray hair? Find out! Jump online to check out the Virtual Makeover Upload your picture and then change your hair color to see what it would look like gray…or any other color! Have fun seeing what you might look like with all sorts of makeovers!
  • Though it will likely be a long time before you have to worry about going gray, a fun way to document growing up is by creating a “photo a day” time-lapse video with a friend or family member. 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 combined 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. You can search online for examples of time-lapse videos, as well as websites that will help you combine your photos into your very own time-lapse video. Have fun watching as time — and life — move before your eyes!

Still Wondering

Science NetLinks’ Hair Color Forensics Science Update tells how DNA evidence may accurately predict an unknown suspect’s hair color.

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