February 23, 2009
Aging Cells Make Hydrogen Peroxide That Grays Hair

We do not just lose the ability to make hair pigment as we get older. Oh no, it is worse than that. Old hair cells pump out hydrogen peroxide (a toxic compound!) which turns our hair white.(thanks Lou Pagnucco for the heads-up)

Wash away your gray? Maybe. A team of European scientists have finally solved a mystery that has perplexed humans throughout the ages: why we turn gray. Despite the notion that gray hair is a sign of wisdom, these researchers show in a research report published online in The FASEB Journal (http://www.fasebj.org) that wisdom has nothing to do with it. Going gray is caused by a massive build up of hydrogen peroxide due to wear and tear of our hair follicles. The peroxide winds up blocking the normal synthesis of melanin, our hair's natural pigment.

This reinforces a belief I've long held: some of our cosmetic changes as we age aren't just cosmetic. The causes of the age-related changes in appearances exact a larger toll on the body. Hydrogen peroxide is toxic. We don't just go gray. Our heads get bathed in the constant release of a peroxide. When you see gray hairs in the mirror think "poison".

"Not only blondes change their hair color with hydrogen peroxide," said Gerald Weissmann, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "All of our hair cells make a tiny bit of hydrogen peroxide, but as we get older, this little bit becomes a lot. We bleach our hair pigment from within, and our hair turns gray and then white. This research, however, is an important first step to get at the root of the problem, so to speak."

My guess is that skin aging similarly causes the skin cells to release compounds that make us less well in the rest of our body. If we could rejuvenate our skin cells we'd probably feel better as a result.

Our hair follicle cells do not make enough of the catalase enzyme which breaks down hydrogen peroxide. Would a gene therapy help or do we need cell therapy that replaces the aged cells?

The researchers made this discovery by examining cell cultures of human hair follicles. They found that the build up of hydrogen peroxide was caused by a reduction of an enzyme that breaks up hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen (catalase). They also discovered that hair follicles could not repair the damage caused by the hydrogen peroxide because of low levels of enzymes that normally serve this function (MSR A and B). Further complicating matters, the high levels of hydrogen peroxide and low levels of MSR A and B, disrupt the formation of an enzyme (tyrosinase) that leads to the production of melanin in hair follicles. Melanin is the pigment responsible for hair color, skin color, and eye color. The researchers speculate that a similar breakdown in the skin could be the root cause of vitiligo.

"As any blue-haired lady will attest, sometimes hair dyes don't quite work as anticipated," Weissmann added. "This study is a prime example of how basic research in biology can benefit us in ways never imagined."

So your cells get too old and they start spewing toxins. That makes them age even more rapidly and things go from bad to worse in a vicious cycle. What's the answer? We need therapies to rejuvenate our bodies. We start with youthful healthiness. But things start falling apart. Everything else is the slow slide into disease.

Here's the original paper.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 February 23 09:22 PM  Aging Mechanisms

JPS said at February 24, 2009 7:56 AM:

"Blue-haired Lady"

The blue rinse is made to compensate for the general yellowing of vision, the small cataract effect that occurs with everyone as we age. Through that yellow tinge, the blue-rinse hair appears to be pure white!

TTT said at February 24, 2009 10:59 AM:

While aging will be slowed down and human life expectancy will rise to about 110, there will never be true rejuvenation therapies that reverse aging.

Randall Parker said at February 24, 2009 11:44 AM:


Why do you say that? Surely we will be able to replace a number of aged parts. Do you at least agree with that?

For example, I expect within 20 years (and maybe in 10 years) we'll have cell therapies that replace aged hair follicle cells.

Doctors already do cell replacements with skin grafts. They also already do cell replacements with donated cells when people get their bone marrow cells wiped out in order to treat leukemia. What is holding them back from doing more is the need for better and more types of cells. Stem cell research will produce the needed types of cells.

Bill Quick said at February 24, 2009 11:47 AM:
While aging will be slowed down and human life expectancy will rise to about 110, there will never be true rejuvenation therapies that reverse aging.
Well, thank goodness that's all settled, then.
Ridolph said at February 24, 2009 12:11 PM:

We know that Cylons go Grey, so what hope is there for us humans?

lwo said at February 24, 2009 1:39 PM:

Considering hydrogen peroxide is a common toothpaste ingredient, calling it a "toxic compound" strikes me as just a little hysterical, in both sensees of the word.

David Govett said at February 24, 2009 2:20 PM:

TTT, you are correct, as far as we know now. According to Aubrey De Grey, for the foreseeable future it will be impossible to correct 100% of cellular aging, so it will accumulate. This won't matter in every part of the body other than the brain. The contents of the brain cannot be restored, once lost, so any damage will be irretrievable. Although I suppose that if it becomes possible to monitor and record the state of the brain in detail, we will be able to restore lost synaptic connections.

Fat Man said at February 24, 2009 2:51 PM:

There are worse things than white hair.

Like no hair.

Randall Parker said at February 24, 2009 3:03 PM:


Toxicity of many substances is a matter of dosage size. If you kept a lot of hydrogen peroxide in your mouth all day and night for years it would be bad for you.

The reason hydrogen peroxide is in some toothpastes is because it kills bacteria. Well, it damages and kills human cells too.

Fat Man,


Bob Badour said at February 24, 2009 3:54 PM:

I respectfully suggest no hair is not worse than white hair. Look at Yul Brenner, Telly Savalas, Ed Doud etc. Some hair or a little hair on the other hand... (especially in a comb-over--avoid the temptation at all cost.)

Lou Pagnucco said at February 25, 2009 8:24 AM:

First, I agree with Randall that there are plenty of opportunities to repair aged tissue. Recently, there have been reports of restoration of heart function and joint repair with stem cells - also progress on stimulating neurogenesis in the adult brain, and partial rejuvenation of senescent skin.

Second, it looks like H2O2 is a key player in the differentiation of many tissues in both plants and animals - it does not appear to be just an unwanted metabolic byproduct. Maybe the excess accumulation in hair follicles is just a case of a process going too far - i.e., a case of antagonist pleiotropy, and actually programmed in the sense that there is no "shut off" mechanism.

Allan said at February 25, 2009 2:02 PM:

OK, so is there anything we can take or eat to dilute the h2o2?

Randall Parker said at February 25, 2009 7:47 PM:


Yes, H2O2 and other radical generators serve signaling functions in the body. But I doubt the H2O2 in this case is doing something useful.

Parenthetically, I once read an interview of Denman Harman (who first theorized that free radicals cause aging way back in 1954 or so) and he pointed out that if you take too many antioxidants you'll feel sluggish and tired because of too much free radical quenching. Some radicals serve useful functions.

Lou Pagnucco said at February 26, 2009 7:52 AM:


There are a variety of topical antioxidant formulations that may reduce H2O2 reported in the literature. I have no idea if they would prevent, or reverse early-stage graying.


I am not sure what you are asserting, since the superoxide radical is likely one of the cases Harman was refering to.

Randall Parker said at February 26, 2009 8:28 PM:


I'm saying the same radical will get generated sometimes intentionally to serve a functional purposes and other times as a side effect and with only harmful results. I doubt that the H2O2 that is turning hair white is delivering a benefit.

Harman's point is that antioxidants quelch both beneficial and harmful radicals.

Wenchypoo said at September 8, 2009 8:45 AM:

There's an article about the root cause of gray hair here (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090223131123.htm)--since hydro peroxide is a main ingredient in hair dye, isn't hair dye just defeating the purpose?

I keep my gray hair under (miraculous) control with plums and l-glutathione. I know why the l-glutathione works, but not the plums. I've decided not to dye my hair unless I absolutely have to, because it seems to me that hair dye does more harm to us than good.

Abakhan said at July 24, 2012 1:44 AM:

Wenchypoo, how do you use the plums and i-glutathione - do you ingest them or apply topically? Whatever the method, what quantities or dosages do you use and how frequently, etc?

Abakhan said at August 14, 2012 8:41 PM:

Wenchypoo, it looks like you have not seen myearlier comment. When you do, you may kindly give your reaction.


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