The biology of human hair greying

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2021 Feb;96(1):107-128. doi: 10.1111/brv.12648. Epub 2020 Sep 23.


Hair greying (canities) is one of the earliest, most visible ageing-associated phenomena, whose modulation by genetic, psychoemotional, oxidative, senescence-associated, metabolic and nutritional factors has long attracted skin biologists, dermatologists, and industry. Greying is of profound psychological and commercial relevance in increasingly ageing populations. In addition, the onset and perpetuation of defective melanin production in the human anagen hair follicle pigmentary unit (HFPU) provides a superb model for interrogating the molecular mechanisms of ageing in a complex human mini-organ, and greying-associated defects in bulge melanocyte stem cells (MSCs) represent an intriguing system of neural crest-derived stem cell senescence. Here, we emphasize that human greying invariably begins with the gradual decline in melanogenesis, including reduced tyrosinase activity, defective melanosome transfer and apoptosis of HFPU melanocytes, and is thus a primary event of the anagen hair bulb, not the bulge. Eventually, the bulge MSC pool becomes depleted as well, at which stage greying becomes largely irreversible. There is still no universally accepted model of human hair greying, and the extent of genetic contributions to greying remains unclear. However, oxidative damage likely is a crucial driver of greying via its disruption of HFPU melanocyte survival, MSC maintenance, and of the enzymatic apparatus of melanogenesis itself. While neuroendocrine factors [e.g. alpha melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), ß-endorphin, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH)], and micropthalmia-associated transcription factor (MITF) are well-known regulators of human hair follicle melanocytes and melanogenesis, how exactly these and other factors [e.g. thyroid hormones, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), P-cadherin, peripheral clock activity] modulate greying requires more detailed study. Other important open questions include how HFPU melanocytes age intrinsically, how psychoemotional stress impacts this process, and how current insights into the gerontobiology of the human HFPU can best be translated into retardation or reversal of greying.

Keywords: ageing; endocrine; graying; melanin; senescence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biology
  • Hair Color*
  • Hair Follicle
  • Humans
  • Melanins
  • Melanocytes*


  • Melanins