Hair gets its colour from cells called melanocytes, which produce pigment called melanin; differences in the quantity and type of melanin result in different hair colours. As we age, melanocytes slow down their production of melanin – or stop altogether – resulting in a lack of pigment. Hair that lacks melanin looks white, while the combination of pigmented and non-pigmented hair appears grey.
While the process is totally natural, it’s still unnerving; it might be inevitable, but it’s out of our hands as to when it will happen and how quickly. Any change we don’t have control over can be hard to handle; even more so when it’s one that is so intrinsically tied to negative societal interpretations.
About 50% of people who colour their hair do so to cover greys; it’s a visible sign of ageing, and in a society that deifies youth above all else, it’s no wonder so much time, effort and money is spent trying to fight it.
Hiding grey hair is nothing new; primitive hair colourants are as old as human life and have always been used to disguise the signs of ageing. Historians have found more than 100 Roman recipes for dyes to cover grey and the Ancient Egyptians used the blood of black cats as a supremely gothic alternative to root coverup.
In 2021, grey hair is finally starting to feel more mainstream. People who previously coloured their hair religiously have learnt to accept the enforced natural look, and are growing out their greys – as celebrated recently at Cannes by actors Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren and Jodie Foster.