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Home Hair Colors Explained

Hair Colors Explained

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Hair Colors Explained

Hair color is the pigmentation of hair follicles due to two types of melanin, eumelanin and pheomelanin. Generally, if more melanin is present, the color of the hair is darker; if less melanin is present, the hair is lighter. Levels of melanin can vary over time causing a person's hair color to change, and it is possible to have hair follicles of more than one color.

Particular hair colors can be associated with ethnic groups - however, due to migration and global travel, considerable variations have developed in the hair color of individuals within an ethnic group, creating a greatly increased diversity of hair color.

Genetics and biochemistry of hair color

Two types of pigment give hair its color: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Pheomelanin colors hair red. Eumelanin, which has two subtypes of black or brown, determines the darkness of the hair color. A low concentration of brown eumelanin results in blond hair, whereas a higher concentration of brown eumelanin will color the hair brown. High amounts of black eumelanin result in black hair, while low concentrations give gray hair. All humans have some pheomelanin in their hair.

Pheomelanin is more chemically stable than black eumelanin, but less chemically stable than brown eumelanin, so it breaks down more slowly when oxidized. This is why bleach gives darker hair a reddish tinge during the artificial coloring process. As the pheomelanin continues to break down, the hair will gradually become orange, then yellow, and finally white.

The genetics of hair colors are not yet firmly established. According to one theory, at least two gene pairs control human hair color.

One gene, (brown/blond) has a dominant brown allele and a recessive blond allele. A person with a brown allele will have brown hair; a person with no brown alleles will be blond. This explains why two brown-haired parents can produce a blond-haired child.

The other gene pair is a non-red/red pair, where the not-red allele (which suppresses production of pheomelanin) is dominant and the allele for red hair is recessive. A person with two copies of the red-haired allele will have red hair, but it will be either auburn or bright reddish orange depending on whether the first gene pair gives brown or blond hair, respectively.

The two-gene model does not account for all possible shades of brown, blond, or red (for example, platinum blond versus dark blonde/light brown), nor does it explain why hair color sometimes darkens as a person ages. Several gene pairs control the light versus dark hair color in a cumulative effect. A person's genotype for a multifactorial trait can interact with environment to produce varying phenotypes (see quantitative trait locus).

Natural hair colors

Natural hair color can be black, brown, blond, or red, depending on a person's ethnic origins. Hair color is typically genetically associated with certain skin tones and eye colors.

Black hair

Brown hair

Auburn hair

Red hair

Sample Hair Colors

Blond hair

Gray hair

White hair

Brown hair

Brown hair is the second most common hair color, the most common in Europe and some other parts of the world. It is characterized by higher levels of eumelanin and lower levels of pheomelanin. Of the two types of eumelanin (black and brown), brown-haired people have brown eumelanin; they also usually have medium-thick strands of hair. Brown-haired people are also known as brunettes/brunets.

Black hair

Black hair is the darkest and the most common color of human hair. It has large amounts of eumelanin and is less dense than other hair colors. It can range from soft black to nearly black blue hair color to near jet black.

Blond hair

Blond hair ranges from nearly white (platinum blonde, tow-haired) to a dark golden blond. Strawberry blond, a mixture of blond and red hair only (thought to have originated in Celtic and Scandinavian countries) is a much rarer type containing the most amounts of phaeomelanin.

Blond hair can have almost any proportion of pheomelanin and eumelanin, but both only in small amounts. More pheomelanin creates a more golden blond color, and more eumelanin creates an ash blond. Blond hair is common in many European peoples, but rare among peoples of non-European origin. Many children born with blond hair develop darker hair as they age.

Auburn hair

Auburn hair ranges from light to reddish brown. The chemicals which cause auburn hair are eumelanin (brown) and pheomelanin. It is most commonly found in individuals of European descent.

Red hair

Red hair ranges from vivid strawberry shades to deep auburn and burgundy. It is caused by a variation in the Mc1r gene and believed to be recessive. Red hair has the highest amounts of pheomelanin and usually low levels of eumelanin, and is the rarest natural human hair color.

Grey and white hair

Grey hair color typically occurs naturally as people age (see "Effects of aging on hair color", below). For some people this can happen at a very young age (i.e.: at the age of 10). The same can be said for white hair. In some cases, grey hair may be caused by thyroid deficiencies or a deficiency of B12.

The Journal of Investigative Dermatology published a study in 2005 that claimed white people will begin to gray in their mid-thirties and Asian people begin graying in their late thirties, but most black people can retain their original hair color until their mid-forties.

Conditions affecting hair color

Effects of aging on hair color

Children born with some hair colors may find it gradually darkens as they grow. Many blond, strawberry blond, light brown, or red haired infants experience this.

Changes in hair color typically occur naturally as people age, eventually turning the hair gray and then white. This is called achromotrichia. More than 40 percent of Americans have some gray hair by age 40, but white hairs can appear as early as childhood. The age at which graying begins seems almost entirely due to genetics. Sometimes people are born with gray hair because they inherit the trait.

Two genes appear to be responsible for the process of graying, Bcl2 and Bcl-w. The change in hair color occurs when melanin ceases to be produced in the hair root and new hairs grow in without pigment. The stem cells at the base of hair follicles produce melanocytes, the cells that produce and store pigment in hair and skin. The death of the melanocyte stem cells causes the onset of graying.

Other medical conditions affecting hair color

Albinism is a genetic abnormality in which little pigment is found in human hair, eyes or skin. The hair is white or pale blond.

Vitiligo is a patchy loss of hair and skin color that may occur as the result of an auto-immune disease.

Malnutrition is also known to cause hair to become lighter, thinner, and more brittle. Dark hair may turn reddish or blondish due to the decreased production of melanin. The condition is reversible with proper nutrition.

Werner syndrome and pernicious anemia can also cause premature graying.

A recent study demonstrated that people 50–70 years of age with dark eyebrows but gray hair are significantly more likely to have type II diabetes than those with both gray eyebrows and hair.

Artificial factors affecting hair color

A 1996 British Medical Journal study conducted by J.G. Mosley, MD found that tobacco smoking may cause premature graying. Smokers were found to be four times more likely to begin graying prematurely, compared to nonsmokers.

Gray hair may temporarily darken after inflammatory processes, after electron-beam-induced alopecia, and after some chemotherapy regimens. Much remains to be learned about the physiology of human graying.

There are no special diets, nutritional supplements, vitamins, nor proteins that have been proven to slow, stop, or in any way affect the graying process, although many have been marketed over the years. This may change in the near future. French scientists treating leukemia patients with a new cancer drug noted an unexpected side effect: some of the patients' hair color was restored to their pre-gray color.


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Cool Hair Facts

Hair is composed of 50.65% carbon, 20.85% oxygen, 17.14% nitrogen, 6.36% hydrogen, and 5.0% sulfur. Hair also contains trace amounts of magnesium, arsenic, iron, chromium and other metals and minerals.

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The fine, downy hair that covers the cheeks and other parts of the face is called lanugo hair.