To gray or not - today, it's a choice

By PATTI EWALD pewald@tampabay.com Published:

Hairdresser Judy Atkinson said as long as she has an ounce of strength in her body, a gray hair will never be seen growing out of her head. And she might be onto something -- at least for herself. The attractive hairstylist looks at least 10 years younger than her 69 years.

"As long as I can reach up here," Atkinson said as she brought both hands up to her scalp, "I'll never be gray."

Many Hollywood celebrities aren't so adamant. In fact, some young actors have gone voluntarily gray. Kate Moss, 39, Kelly Osbourne, 28, Mary Kate Olsen, 26, and Pink, 33, have all been seen in varying shades of gray, with Osbourne sporting a striking, almost lavender, tint at the Golden Globes ceremony.

So we're not talking a dull gray, the shade of lead. New techniques and products can make sterling, pewter and pearl tones glimmer and shine.

The topic of "owning, not hiding your gray hair" seems to trend every couple of years but should reach a crescendo as the thundering herd of baby boomers overtakes the majority of the population.

Gray is certainly no longer synonymous with Grandma -- 71 percent of respondents in a prevention.com poll say women with gray hair can be sexy and 78 percent say men can, but most of us remain able to admire it on others and not see it on ourselves.

Atkinson, whose salon is in St. Petersburg, Fla., said only about 25 percent of her clients who are gray actually stay gray, and those are usually older clients. That hasn't changed much in the 52 years she has been a hairdresser.

Questioning the need to color happens especially to clients who have been coloring their hair for decades.

And, hair tinting is becoming routine with many girls starting to get highlights or lowlights before they are in their teens.

Kathy Wise, 51,who was getting her own gray touched up in a salon recently, is a stock trader who maintains that if you want to get a job, you've got to get rid of the gray.

"On the trading floor in Chicago, there were thousands of women and none of them had gray hair," Wise said. "Women don't want to look old. People don't want to hire you."

One thing's for certain: It's no longer a matter of have-to dye; it's a matter of want-to dye.

Even if the boomers decide gray is for them and the world is topped with silver for the next 10 or 20 years, it could be the last time that ever has to happen.

The hair-color giant L'Oreal has spent years working on a gray-prevention pill, expected to come out in 2015. It will contain an undisclosed fruit extract that mimics the chemical tyrosinase-related protein or TRP-2, an enzyme that protects pigmentation production, the company told the Huffington Post last year.

Bruno Bernard, head of hair biology at L'Oreal, explained further to Cosmopolitan magazine:

"We intend for people to take it in the same way as a dietary supplement. It won't be expensive. Ideally you would take it for your whole life, but realistically we would encourage people to start using it before their hair goes gray because we don't think it can reverse the process once it has started," he said.

In fact, you'd need to take the pill regularly for 10 years before going gray to reap the benefits.

Here are some facts from Library of Congress researchers:

-- Your chance of going gray increases 10 to 20 percent every decade after 30 years.

-- Hair gets its natural color from melanin, a type of pigment.

-- Hair color depends on the distribution, type and amount of melanin in the middle layer of the hair shaft.

-- Hair has two types of pigments: dark (eumelanin) and light (phaeomelanin). They blend together to make up the wide range of hair colors.

-- The pigment cells that make up melanin position themselves at the hair follicles, the openings on the skin's surface through which hair grows.

-- Each hair grows in three phases: the actively growing stage (two to seven years), a two-week transitional phase when growth begins to shut down and then the final stage in which growth has stopped and the hair falls out and a new hair begins to grow.

-- Each hair is on its own individual cycle. If all our hair were on the same cycle, we would molt.

-- With age comes a reduction of melanin. The hair turns gray and eventually white. It's not fully understood why the pigment production shuts down.

-- An average scalp has 100,000 to 150,000 hairs.

-- Hair is so strong that each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams (3.5 ounces). An average head of hair could hold 10 to 15 tons if only the scalp was strong enough.

Source: loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/grayhair.html

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