Gray hair may be merely a cosmetic problem but it can have serious effects on an individual's self-esteem and emotional state. For many, the appearance of their first gray hairs signifies they're getting older in a very real way. In most cases, gray hair can be colored easily with hair dye to cosmetically restore the individual's natural hair color but hair dye must be touched up every few weeks. If individuals are in their forties or fifties, gray hair may seem like a natural part of getting older but even individuals in their teens and twenties can develop premature gray hair for a variety of reasons.
Vitiligo is a disease that causes pigment loss in the skin and sometimes the eyes and hair. The disease causes damage or death to pigment-producing cells that produce melanin that gives hair, eyes, and skin their color. This can leave white patches of skin that may grow over time. Some patients with the disease develop hair that goes gray prematurely. Because vitiligo often causes light patches of skin that spread, some patients may develop just a section of hair that turns white or gray, but this patch may spread across the entire scalp.
This happens because hair depigmentation follows skin depigmentation as the disease progresses. Many individuals with the disease do not develop premature gray hair, however, because follicular melanocytes, or cells that produce melanin for hair, are different than melanocytes in the skin. Follicular melanocytes are not all mature cells; the hair follicles contain an immature type of melanocyte that can escape damage from the disease.