(USA TODAY) Anderson Cooper, Emmylou Harris and Toni Morrison are among famous faces known also for their striking silver tresses. But while they and others embrace their gray hair, plenty of Americans - celebrities and non-celebs alike - are more than eager to make it go away.
Targeting these consumers is a relatively new category of over-the-counter supplements containing a mixture of vitamins, minerals and enzymes and touted as an easy, natural alternative to hair dyes. According to the pitches, these products not only restore your locks to their original color, but also prevent them from ever turning white.
Even beauty-industry titan L'Oreal has shown interest in the hair-raising idea. Last year, Bruno Bernard, head of the company's hair biology group, told the United Kingdom's Daily Mail newspaper that it was working on an anti-gray pill that it expected to be in production by 2015. This summer, it was reported by New York Magazine that the Paris-based company had filed a patent application for what it called a "secret potion that will prevent gray hair. Forever."
Company spokeswoman Suzie Davidowitz told USA TODAY, "Although we have chosen not to unveil any further information, we can affirm that this discovery underscores the importance L'Oreal places in its advanced research."
But several smaller companies are already up and running with anti-gray pills with such catchy names as Go Away Gray, Get Away Grey and Grey Defence.
Cathy Beggan's Go Away Gray claims to "permanently cure gray hair" in as little as eight weeks by delivering the enzyme catalase to the hair follicle.
Beggan is a former real-estate marketing executive whose Sparta, N.J.-based company, Rise-N-Shine LLC, sells more than a dozen products promising help for everything from low energy to wrinkles.
Her anti-gray remedy was inspired by a much-publicized 2009 study published in the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology'sFASEB Journal that found catalase counteracts the body's natural production of hydrogen peroxide, which, over time, bleaches the hair of its natural color from the inside out, leaving it gray.
"That research showed that as we age, we produce less catalase, preventing the hydrogen peroxide from being broken down," Beggan says.
Go Away Gray (sold online and in stores for $29.99 for a 30-day supply of 60 pills) puts catalase, a plant derivative, back in the body, breaking down the hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen and halting the natural graying process, she says. The product affects only the new hair as it comes in at the root, she adds.
Robin Duner-Fenter, an entertainment and media marketing executive in Charleston, S.C., developed similarly named Get Away Grey after also reading about catalase.
"One capsule, taken two times a day directly after a meal, is the best way to metabolize (it) into the bloodstream," he says.
As dietary supplements, these products do not need to register with the Food and Drug Administration or any other agency, nor receive approval before hitting the market. The FDA takes action only if the product later proves to be unsafe.
Although the ads make the science of erasing gray hair - without messy, do-it-yourself hair dyes or expensive trips to the salon - sound as easy as popping a pill, most hair science experts remain skeptical.
"Theoretically, it seems like an interesting idea," says Wilma Bergfeld, senior staff dermatologist at The Cleveland Clinic and a specialist in hair disorders. But she quickly adds that it hasn't been proven yet "in the clinical arena," nor has there been any research on potential health risks.
"We don't know the delivery system, if (the action is being caused by) a derivative of (another) chemical, or how it's absorbed. All those things are unknown," she says.
Paradi Mirmirani, a dermatologist specializing in hair at the Permanente Medical Group in Vallejo, Calif., agrees that that there isn't enough "hard science" to support the notion that the current crop of oral supplements will affect gray hair.
"I just don't think we have enough information" to recommend them, she says.
Both Mirmirani and Bergfeld say there's no reason to suspect that these supplements can be harmful, but they also recommend informing your physician before taking them, just as you should with any supplement.
"Check with your doctor to make sure they're harmless to your individual health, and then make sure you're not paying an exorbitant amount of money for it," Mirmirani says.
When it comes to going gray, lifestyle and certain health conditions can play a role, but "overall, it's much more about genetic programming," says Jeffrey Benabio, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego.
A survey reported last year in the British Journal of Dermatology found that people of African and Hispanic descent had less gray hair than those of Caucasian origin at comparable ages, confirming previously reported data. Men had significantly more gray hair than women; 74% of people between the ages of 45 to 65 had gray hair.
While most of the current crop of anti-gray products focus on the role of catalase, L'Oreal says it is looking elsewhere, sponsoring research and publishing papers examining the enzyme TRP-2.
"Its absence in pigment-producing cells called melanocytes is likely linked to progressive graying," spokeswoman Davidowitz said in an e-mail. "Experts in the field confirm that substances mimicking TRP-2 activity might be of value to fight hair graying."
L'Oreal's Bernard is quoted as saying the company's pill would be based on a fruit extract that mimics TRP-2.
"You would take it for your whole life, but realistically, we'd encourage people to start using it before their hair goes gray, because we don't think it can reverse the process once it has started," he told the Daily Mail.