Gray Hair, Highlighter Ink

Heymatt! I don’t know what to do. I’m only in high school, but I found a gray hair on the side of my head a few days ago. My hair is turning gray already. What’s making this happen? Do you know what’s going to happen to me? Does this mean I’m getting old faster than my friends? How can a teenager get gray hair? I really hate this and hope there is something I can do to stop it. — No Name, No Place

Grandma swears that dealing with elves made her hair turn gray practically overnight. We were pretty sympathetic; but as it turns out, the science guys say with certainty, coping with stress, even elf-generated stress, doesn’t cause gray hair. The main culprit in premature graying is genetics. That goes for Grandma and most likely goes for you, too. Somewhere in your genetic makeup is an instruction that shuts off the hair-color faucet earlier than other people. And we should say right away that premature gray hair doesn’t indicate a premature aging of any other part of your body. Science hasn’t found any link between premature gray hair and premature death. So, calm down and start looking for a nice hair-color product while we explain what’s up.

Head hair grows faster than any other body hair. A single strand lives four, maybe five years, then falls out and a new one takes its place. After eight or ten cycles, melanin, the hair-color substance, starts pooping out and hair begins to turn gray. Actually, the hair shaft becomes clear when the melanin splits, but it looks gray because you’re seeing surrounding dark hair through the clear shaft.

Caucasians tend to gray earlier than other groups — around 40, maybe even 30. African-heritage people gray in their 40s or 50s. Asians a little later. One set of scientists opines that hydrogen peroxide that slowly builds up in the hair follicle eventually blocks the normal synthesis of melanin, causing graying. Like bleaching your hair from the inside out. And these ages of graying are averages. As you’ve found out, there’s some variation. Teenage graying is unusual but not unheard of.

In spite of what you might read, there’s really nothing you can eat or do to change your situation. No strange Indian berries or yogic mantras. There is an outside chance that your premature graying might be linked to a thyroid or nutrition disorder, but that’s a medical situation, so check it out with your doc. Odds are, though, you’re perfectly fine, just acquiring a distinguished look way early.

Heymatt: I can’t help noticing, as I sit here in my cubicle, endlessly shuffling papers and marking up documents with my yellow, pink, and blue highlighters, that the new marks are much brighter than the marks I made the day before. Are these markers radioactive, and is the reason they lose intensity so fast because they are shedding electrons quicker than a chunk of cesium in Chernobyl? The label tells me that they are “ACI certified AP nontoxic (conforms to ASTM D4236).” Is there really a governing body in charge of highlighter safety? — Glowing in Sorrento Valley

One governing body? When it comes to marking pens, we’re such boobs it takes two governing bodies to protect us from ourselves. You know every office has somebody who tries to crack up the joint by walking around with stuff stuck up his nose. If he uses markers but forgets to put the caps on them first, he could be in big trouble. The ACMI obviously has anticipated that scenario. They’re the Art and Creative Materials Institute, a trade group founded in 1946 to test art materials for safety. “ACMI certified AP” means the formula for your marking-pen ink has been reviewed by toxicologists and declared safe to stick up your nose.

The standards the ACMI uses for potentially toxic markers are the same as those developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials. This is a much older trade group that sets safety and performance standards for, well, just about everything, as far as I can tell. D4236 is the ASTM’s five-page “Standard Practices for Labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards.” So, if one day the guy with the markers up his nose sticks his head into your cube and finds you passed out with pink and yellow markers in your hands, it won’t be from the ink fumes. Just boredom. Oh, yeah. And the highlighters fade fast because they contain less pigment and color stabilizer than regular markers so you can read the text through the marks. Less pigment, faster fading. It can also be affected by the type of paper you’re shuffling.

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Steve Martin said he went gray in his teens. And by the time he was in his late-20s, he was all silver. Soon after that, all white. But one thing Martin has going (he was just on Letterman the other night), he still has a lot of hair on his head. And any guy will tell's better to be gray (and have the option of dying it darker), then to have no hair at all.

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