When Kendall Jenner found her first gray hair last year, she was so disturbed by the incident that she took to Snapchat to broadcast her low-level panic attack. “Hailey [Baldwin] just pulled this hair out of my head and we can't tell if it's gray or blonde,” the then-20-year-old shrieked. Let’s be clear, Kendall: It was gray. The good news, however, is that it’s NBD. People go gray, some earlier than others — genetics, stress levels, environmental factors, and stress deficiencies can all factor into the equation. Some people embrace the change and love the new look — others start booking their colorist appointments months out.
If you, like Kendall, are one of the people who find grays (or even just the prospect of getting them one day) anxiety-inducing, a new discovery from scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center might just be on your side. While studying the formation of certain cancerous tumors in mice, researchers found that a protein called stem cell factor (or SCF) is essential for hair pigmentation — delete it, and hair turns white.
Scientists already knew that SCF was important for pigmented cells, but what they didn’t know was what happens when the stem cells move down to the base of hair follicles, and which cells in the hair follicle produce SCF. If cells with functioning SCF are present, they move up from the base, interact with the cells responsible for pigmentation, and become pigmented hairs. Without it, the mice’s hair turned gray, then white with age.
“Although this project was started in an effort to understand how certain kinds of tumors form, we ended up learning why hair turns gray and discovering the identity of the cell that directly gives rise to hair,” Dr. Lu Le, the associate professor of dermatology at the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at UT Southwestern, said in a press release. “With this knowledge, we hope in the future to create a topical compound to safely deliver the necessary gene to hair follicles to correct these cosmetic problems.” In other words, a "cure" for grays, and not just a temporary fix like hair dye, could be on the way.
Armed with the new information, scientists will now try to determine if those SCF genes lose their ability to function properly as people get older. What’s more, the research might also give us a better look into why we age in general — but first, Dr. Le and his team will try to solve our graying-hair woes. We respect his priorities.