Although some people believe that going gray adds distinction and character, for many people the sight of a gray hair can beckon an existential crisis. It's too bad they weren't born as birds.

Birds, unlike many other animals, don't gray. Their plumage often remains as vibrant as the day they were born, right up until they die. So what's their secret? ... L'Oréal? Just For Men?

New research by scientists at the University of Sheffield have finally discovered the key to birds' ageless beauty. It turns out that birds generate their colors using nanostructures in their feathers, not dyes or pigments, which makes them far less susceptible to deterioration, according to a news release.

Scientists made the discovery while working at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, using a technique called X-ray scattering. The non-destructive process allowed them to study how light bounces off the tiny structures in bird feathers with incredible precision. Basically, the shape and size of these structures can be fixed as the birds grow and develop, which manipulates the wavelengths of light that bounce off them.

The research only looked at how these nanostructures worked on feathers of Eurasian jays, but it's believed that these same principles are likely at play for all birds, thus allowing them to retain their colorful plumage over time. Fascinatingly, scientists found that different parts of the same feather can hold different structural sizes, which helps to explain the complexity of color found on many bird feathers.

The good news for you reluctant silver foxes out there is that scientists believe they might be able to eventually mimic the nanostructure of bird feathers to produce synthetic structural color that could be made cheaply, and that could offer a more permanent coloring solution for hoariness.

“If nature can assemble this material 'on the wing', then we should be able to do it synthetically too,” said Andrew Parnell, lead author of the study.

He added: "Current technology cannot make color with this level of control and precision — we still use dyes and pigments. Now we've learnt how nature accomplishes it, we can start to develop new materials such as clothes or paints using these nanostructuring approaches. It would potentially mean that if we created a red jumper using this method, it would retain its color and never fade in the wash."

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

The remarkable reason old birds never go gray
New research shows how bird feathers make use of nanostructures that manipulate how light scatters off them.