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Int J Cosmet Sci. 2008 Aug;30(4):233-57. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2008.00456.x.

Human hair pigmentation--biological aspects.

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Centre for Skin Sciences, School of Life Sciences, University of Bradford, Richmond Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK.


Skin and hair colour contribute significantly to our overall visual appearance and to social/sexual communication. Despite their shared origins in the embryologic neural crest, the hair follicle and epidermal pigmentary units occupy distinct, although open, cutaneous compartments. They can be distinguished principally on the basis of the former's stringent coupling to the hair growth cycle compared with the latter's continuous melanogenesis. The biosynthesis of melanin and its subsequent transfer from melanocyte to hair bulb keratinocytes depend on the availability of melanin precursors and on a raft of signal transduction pathways that are both highly complex and commonly redundant. These signalling pathways can be both dependent and independent of receptors, act through auto-, para- or intracrine mechanisms and can be modified by hormonal signals. Despite many shared features, follicular melanocytes appear to be more sensitive than epidermal melanocytes to ageing influences. This can be seen most dramatically in hair greying/canities and this is likely to reflect significant differences in the epidermal and follicular microenvironments. The hair follicle pigmentary unit may also serve as an important environmental sensor, whereby hair pigment contributes to the rapid excretion of heavy metals, chemicals and toxins from the body by their selective binding to melanin; rendering the hair fibre a useful barometer of exposures. The recent availability of advanced cell culture methodologies for isolated hair follicle melanocytes and for intact anagen hair follicle organ culture should provide the research tools necessary to elucidate the regulatory mechanisms of hair follicle pigmentation. In the longer term, it may be feasible to develop hair colour modifiers of a biological nature to accompany those based on chemicals.

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