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Why Don’t Redheads Go Gray?

red-haired woman pursing lips and looking to the side
WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Have you heard that redheads don’t go gray? If you’re not redhead yourself, this particular supposition might have slipped you by. If you are a redhead, well, then you might be holding onto this idea as a point of pride.

As the old wives’ tale goes, redheads never go gray. Instead, their hair will fade gracefully from bright red to snow white.

But is there any truth to this claim? Let’s dive in.

Short Answer: You Can’t Make Generalizations About How All Red Hair Ages

Red hair comes in many different hues. Some redheads have bright red hair, while others are more auburn or strawberry blonde.

Just as there are many different types of redheads, there are many different ways that red hair ages.

Indeed, some redheads never go gray: they fade from red to white. However, other redheads do get gray locks.

Why do some redheads go gray and others don’t? Science.

Long Answer: How Your Red Hair Ages Comes Down to Science

Many redheads never go gray. Instead, their hair fades from red to rosy-blonde to white. Genetics determine why (and how) a redhead’s hair changes color due to age.

Redheads get their distinctive hair color from a specific gene mutation. The gene responsible for red hair is the melanocortin 1 receptor, AKA, the MC1R.

For a person to have red hair, they need to have a slight mutation on the MC1R gene on chromosome 16. This mutation is responsible for all of the stereotypical redhead traits: ginger hair (obviously), pale skin, and freckles. The MC1R gene is recessive and has to be passed on by both the mother and the father for a child to develop red hair. That explains why redheads are so rare: only 1-2% of the world’s population has ginger hair.

Now, even though all redheads have a mutation of the MC1R gene on chromosome 16, no two redheads have the same shade of hair, just as no two brunettes have the same shade of hair.

The hue of your hair is determined by two pigments: eumelanin and phomelanin. All hair colors are made up of a combination of eumelanin and phomelanin. Typically, the darker the hair, the more eumelanin it has. The redder the hair, the more phomelanin it has.

As you get older, the amount of eumelanin and phomelanin in your hair changes. That’s when the fading happens. For instance, a redhead with vibrant ginger hair may notice that their color becomes more blonde as they age. That’s because their hair follicle is producing less phomelanin.

Eventually, hair follicles stop producing pigment at all. Then hair enters a new stage, achromotrichia, which is the total absence of pigment. When hair reaches this stage, it’s entirely white.

Do Redheads Go Gray? Final Thoughts

Do redheads go gray or not? The answer is: “It depends.”

As some redheads get older, their hair will go straight from red to rosy gold to white as the amount of pigment in their hair follicle changes. Others will go gray as their specific amount of pigment changes and fades.

Remember: just as there are millions of different ways to be a blonde or a brunette, there are millions of different ways to be a redhead. No red hair behaves the same way, because no red hair is the same.

Hayley Milliman Hayley Milliman
Hayley is a former Teach for America teacher turned curriculum developer and writer. Over the past five years, she's written hundreds of articles on everything from education to personal finance to history. She's the co-author of the book Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females. Read Full Bio »