How is Your Hair Color Determined By Genetics?
Updated on March 18, 2024
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How is Your Hair Color Determined By Genetics?

Key Takeaways

Your hair color is determined by the amount of melanin in your hair. Your genes influence this amount and the type of melanin in your hair.

Our physical traits result from a combination of genes inherited from our parents. Among these features, hair color is a prominent example of genetic influence.

However, just because your parents both have brown hair doesn’t mean that you will also automatically inherit brown hair. Though it’s a large possibility, it’s not always the case.

Genetics can influence your hair color heavily, but how they interact with other factors like the amount and type of melanin developed can change what kind of color it will be. So even if your parents have blond hair, you may still develop dark hair.

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How Do Our Genes Influence Our Hair Color?

Genetics dictates the shades of hair we exhibit through melanin. Melanin is a pigment responsible for the coloration of human hair pigmentation, skin pigmentation, and eyes.1 Two primary types of melanin play pivotal roles in defining hair hues: 

  • Eumelanin – Responsible for shades ranging from black to brown hair. It lends deeper pigmentation to the hair, resulting in dark hair.
  • Pheomelanin – Responsible for shades of red hair and blond hair. Lighter hair is the result of pheomelanin. 

People with equal levels of eumelanin and phenomelanin have red hair.

The unique combination of these two melanins within your hair shaft determines your hair color.

Moreover, variations in specific genes, such as MC1R, ASIP, and other genes, determine the precise combination of melanin pigments in the human hair follicle.2 This leads to different shades of certain hair colors—some blondes are darker than others, etc.

Why Is There Such a Diverse Range of Hair Colors?

The diverse range of human hair color can be attributed to the complex interplay of genetic factors. This interplay is specifically linked to the combination of alleles that control hair color. 

Alleles are different forms of a gene that determine specific traits. They play a major role in hair color inheritance. These include the lightest blondes to the deepest blacks.

The combination of alleles from both parents determines someone’s hair color.2

For example, if someone inherits alleles that promote eumelanin production from both parents, they will likely have darker hair.

Conversely, if someone inherits alleles that lead to higher levels of pheomelanin production, they are more likely to have light hair.

If someone inherits alleles that produce both in equal amounts, they are more likely to have red hair.

The presence of dominant and recessive traits further adds to the complexity. 

Dominant traits tend to have a stronger influence.3 This means that if a person inherits even one dominant allele for a certain hair color, that color is more likely to be expressed. 

On the other hand, recessive traits require both copies to be present for their trait to be visible.

Furthermore, environmental factors, medical conditions, and aging can also influence natural hair color over time. For example, as you age, the pigments that live in your hair follicles slowly die.

How is Hair Color Passed Down Through Generations?

Hair color is determined by a combination of genetic factors. Many genes contribute to the final hue. These genes can exhibit both dominant and recessive inheritance patterns.

These genes are inherited from your parents, and their genes are inherited from their parents.

Two copies of a dominant allele for a certain hair color trait (e.g., brown hair) will generally result in that color being expressed.9 Meanwhile, having two recessive alleles (e.g., blonde hair) will produce a different color.

If someone inherits one dominant and one recessive allele, they may exhibit the dominant trait—but this isn’t always guaranteed.

Therefore, predicting a child’s hair color based on their parents’ hair colors is challenging. It depends on the genetic makeup of both parents. This includes any hidden or masked traits, which makes it difficult to pinpoint the likelihood of a specific color inheritance.

What Role Does Population Genetics Play?

Population genetics plays a significant role in understanding the prevalence of certain hair colors in specific populations and regions. It highlights how genetic variation is distributed across different groups of people. 

For example, certain colors, such as red hair, are more commonly found in populations of European ancestry. This is due to the prevalence of specific genetic variants like MC1R gene mutations.11 

In contrast, black hair is more common in East Asian populations, largely due to different genetic factors.12 

The distribution of hair colors can also be influenced by historical migrations and intermixing of populations. This leads to regional variations. 

The prevalence of certain colors can reflect the genetic history and ancestry of different populations. This highlights the intricate interplay between genetics, geography, and human evolution.

What Else Determines Hair Color Aside From Genetics?

Other external factors also influence hair color. For example, environmental influences and medical conditions can significantly shape our hair colors and appearance. 

How Does The Environment Impact Hair Color?

Genetics provides the foundational blueprint for our hair color. However, external factors like sun exposure, particularly ultraviolet radiation or UV radiation, can also exert influence. 

The sun emits UV radiation that interacts with the melanin in our hair. Melanin serves as a natural protector against UV radiation.1 

However, prolonged and intense sun exposure can break down eumelanin and pheomelanin pigments. This results in gradual lightening, even in black hair or dark hair.

Moreover, UV radiation can damage the hair cuticle.4 This can lead to discoloration, fading, and changes in appearance.

There are several ways to mitigate these effects. Examples include using UV-protective products and practicing proper hair care. These practices can help preserve the integrity of our hair color. 

Are There Medical Conditions That Affect Hair Color?

Beyond genetics, certain medical conditions can affect your hair color. 

One notable example is premature graying.5 Premature graying occurs when hair loses its pigment earlier than expected and can even lead to damage or hair loss. This can be attributed to a combination of factors, including:

  • Genetics
  • Chronic stress
  • Advancing age

Genetic predisposition is a possible contributor to premature graying.6 For example, certain families exhibit a higher tendency for premature graying.

Chronic stress, both physical and emotional, can also influence hair color changes. Prolonged periods of stress have been associated with a quicker onset of gray or white hairs.7

Moreover, as the body ages, melanin production can decline.8 As a result, there is a gradual loss of color. This can manifest in the emergence of gray or white hair strands.

Common Questions About Hair Color and Genetics

Can Two Dark-Haired Parents Have a Blonde Child?

Yes. The hair color of offspring isn’t necessarily going to follow the visible traits of the parents. 

Even if both parents possess darker hair, they can carry a recessive blonde allele in their genetic makeup. Combining these recessive alleles can lead to a blonde hair color in the offspring.

Seemingly hidden traits can resurface in surprising ways. This can contribute to the diverse range of colors observed across generations.

How Reliable Are Baby Hair Color Predictors?

It’s difficult to predict what a baby’s hair color will be because there could be some hidden traits. Predicting a baby’s hair color is an intricate challenge.

Numerous online tools and calculators boast the ability to foresee a baby’s hair color. However, their accuracy is often limited by the complexity of genetics.

Hair color inheritance involves a blend of various genes, alleles, and inheritance patterns that can result in unexpected outcomes.

Baby hair color predictors may offer generalized estimations through observable traits of parents and grandparents. However, they frequently fall short of providing precise predictions.

The intricate genetic tapestry that determines hair color remains a captivating puzzle. In other words, there are limits to the predictability of genetics.

Updated on March 18, 2024
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11 sources cited
Updated on March 18, 2024
  1. Melanin”. Cleveland Clinic.
  2. Is hair color determined by genetics?”. Medline Plus.
  3. What are Dominant and Recessive?”. Learn.Genetics Genetic Science Learning Center.
  4. Mechanism of Cuticle Hole Development in Human Hair Due to UV-Radiation Exposure”. MDPI.
  5. Premature Graying of Hair: Review with Updates”. National Library of Medicine.
  6. Genetics of hair graying with age”. ScienceDirect.
  7. How Stress Causes Gray Hair”. NIH News In Health.
  8. Why does hair turn gray?”. Library of Congress.
  9. Genotypes & Phenotypes”. Socratic Q&A.
  10. A study in scarlet: MC1R as the main predictor of red hair and exemplar of the flip-flop effect”. National Library of Medicine.
  11. Asian Hair: A Review of Structures, Properties, and Distinctive Disorders”. National Library of Medicine.
Will Hunter
Will Hunter
Content Contributor
Will is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Will has 7 years of experience writing health-related content, with an emphasis on nutrition, alternative medicine, and longevity.