L'Oreal's 'Pill for Grey Hair' Raises Concerns

Questions remain about L'Oreal's latest research.

ByABC News
October 5, 2011, 2:42 PM

Oct. 5, 2011— -- When news broke this week that L'Oreal was developing a pill to prevent grey hair, it made headlines around the world. But scientists say the pill, which has not yet been created, produces more questions than answers.

Bruno Bernard, head of the Hair Care, Quality and Color team at L'Oreal, first spoke about the cosmetic company's research, telling the Daily Mail the pill will be based on a fruit extract that mimics an enzyme called TRP-2, which isn't present in hair follicles.

TRP-2 helps make pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. In theory, the presence of TRP-2 could prevent hair from going gray.

"Ideally you would take [the pill] for your whole life, but realistically we'd encourage people to start using it before their hair goes grey because we don't think it can reverse the process once it has started," he told the UK paper. "We have a watertight proof of concept, and we think it will have a market among men as well as women."

Dr. Jonathan Zippin, a dermatologist at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told ABCNews.com this kind of preventative solution to grey hair is "really difficult to prove" because some people never go grey, and others only grey a little bit. If researchers gave the pill to someone who never got grey hair, there would be no way to know if it was because of the pill or not.

In addition, there are several unanswered questions about a pill that alters pigment, Zippin noted, especially if it would affect the diagnosis of melanoma by making moles look atypical.

In a statement released yesterday, L'Oreal briefly described its research efforts, but made no mention of a pill or the alleged 2015 release date widely reported by several media outlets.

"L'Oreal has demonstrated and published in peer-reviewed journals the protective role of the enzyme TRP-2. Its absence in hair follicle melanocytes is likely linked to progressive greying," the statement reads. "Experts in the field confirm that substances mimicking TRP-2 activity might be of value to fight hair greying."

But at this point, reports of a pill to prevent grey hair seem "a little premature," according to L'Oreal spokesman Jonathan Maher.

"We're still very much in the research phase," he said, adding that he cannot go into further detail.

Scientists at the Ito Lab at New York University's Langone Medical Center are also researching grey hair, and recently identified the proteins responsible for pigment. In June they published a paper in the journal Cell, announcing that a network of proteins called the wnt signaling pathway are responsible for preventing grey hair in mice.

When they inhibited the wnt pathway, the hair on the mice turned grey.

"Mouse and the human hairs are very similar in the way that they are structured and the way they contain melanocyte stem cells. We found that the wnt signaling pathway is activated the same way," said Piul Rabbani, a grad student in NYU's Langone Medical Center who led the study, told ABC News in June.

Clearly a pill for grey hair is several years away, but with additional study, Zippin says L'Oreal's research could be "very promising."

We want to hear from our readers -- would you ever consider taking a pill to prevent your hair from going grey?