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Can Your Hair Turn White From Fear or Stress?

3 mins

Radhika Bhatia

Research suggests the possibility of losing hair color in a sudden span of time. What causes this, and can your hair turn white from fear or stress?

You’ve read about it in novels and comic books, heard about it through idioms and hyperboles, and seen it happen in cartoons or perhaps to someone else in real life. An all-too-rapid graying or whitening of hair is a phenomenon well-recorded in history, but to what extent is it true?

In her memoirs, the lady-in-waiting of Marie Antoinette, who was the last Queen of France, writes about how the latter’s hair turned white overnight right before her execution. Experts have since offered various explanations for the event, such as extreme grief, certain medical conditions, or simply the lack of access to hair dye. However, the theme runs rather prevalent across several pages in history, which has led scientists to investigate what is now known as the Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

This article will cover the science behind sudden hair whitening, what triggers an unnatural loss of natural hair color, and how to prevent this. Ultimately, it will answer the question can your hair turn white from fear?

Table of Contents

  • The Science Behind Sudden Hair Whitening
  • Can your hair turn white from fear or stress?
  • Are there other symptoms and causes of Canities?
  • What can you do to treat and/or prevent this?
  • Tips on managing stress

    The Science Behind Sudden Hair Whitening

    Although the condition received its moniker from the most famous example in history, a review published in 2008 states that its occurrence dates back to 83 AD, when a young scholar named Talmud was found to have worked so hard that his natural hair turned white. He was only 17 at the time.

    Since then, health and historical experts have been equally intrigued and performed several investigations into the subject. Medically known as Canities Subita, or Marie Antoinette Syndrome, the phenomenon is characterized by a rapid change in scalp hair color to white. The process of sudden whitening is still in the shadows, but it is deemed a permanent transformation that differs significantly from natural, age-related graying.

    As per a study published in Archives of Dermatology in 2009, an American dermatologist was met with a 63-year-old patient who experienced sudden hair whitening after falling down a flight of stairs. He observed a loss of hair but no bald patches, and a few months later, he was diagnosed with extensive vitiligo, a condition in which areas of skin lose their pigment without a clear cause, resulting in white patches.

    After years of research on similar cases, the disorder or hair turning white suddenly has been termed Canities Subita and defined as an acute episode of diffuse alopecia areata wherein “overnight” whitening results from a partial loss in hair pigment. It’s attributed to the body’s immune system and related to our melanin pigment system.

    Therefore, the condition of hair turning white suddenly is a proven medical condition. Its exact triggers, causes, and symptoms continue to be the subject of research. However, experts have offered some possible explanations over the years.

    Can your hair turn white from fear or stress?

    The most common themes discovered by professionals in various reviews of literature included a degree of trauma, such as accidents, house fires, the death of a loved one, and acute cases of stress, grief, or fear. However, there have also been accounts of patients with rapid symptoms of alopecia areata despite being healthy, middle-aged, and not reeling from extraordinary duress. This indicates that while overwhelming emotions at extreme ends might have a role to play, there’s more to the condition than we know.

    Can your hair turn white from stress?

    Are there other symptoms and causes of Canities?

    Cases of the Marie Antoinette Syndrome, though rare, have been impossible to dismiss by doctors. There are multiple theories on the causes and anecdotal evidence of symptoms, such as:

    • Severe hair loss: If you have patches of white hair and experience a sudden loss of pigmented and naturally colored hair, then the grays and whites will become much more prominent.
    • Chronic stress: Studies have suggested a correlation between acute stress and early onset graying resulting from DNA damage caused by a permanent depletion of melanocyte stem cells. So, is it possible that your hair turned white from fear and stress? It’s possible.
      hair turning white from stress
    • Alopecia: The main reason for this connection is that patients undergo extreme hair loss caused by underlying inflammation. This causes the hair follicles to stop new hair growth, which is why alopecia presents at first as bald patches and loss of pigmentation.
    • Vitiligo: While the disease is linked with skin color loss in patches, researchers suspect its relevance to sudden or early onset hair whitening.
    • Allergies: In some cases, the transformation may have been brought about by specific allergies as well.

    What can you do to treat and/or prevent this?

    If you notice a sudden appearance of grey hair at a relatively young age, then it might be a good idea to consult a dermatologist. ‘Sudden’ does not mean ‘overnight’. It implies a short span of time, such as a few weeks or months.

    The treatment plan depends entirely on your diagnosis. From topical steroids and oral medication to hair dyes and stress-reducing oil massages, there are various ways to treat and prevent Canities.

    Tips on managing stress

      While acute stress is difficult to prevent, often being linked with traumatic events, most of us suffer from chronic stress, which can also impact our mane. Besides the typical recommendations – sleep at least 8 hours per night, eat healthily, try to meditate etc. – I would also recommend trying aromatherapy. Several studies have shown that essential oils can indeed help relieve stress and anxiety and even induce restorative sleep. Here are a couple of products I’ve tried and loved:

      • WOW Sheer Bliss Essential Oil is a blend of minty and fruity scents with light floral notes, designed to make you feel calm and to refresh your mind. The impact of aromatherapy on stress, anxiety, and restlessness is undeniable. Minutes of massaging with a single drop of this essential oil (properly diluted in a carrier oil) every day can help you de-stress, while using it in a diffuser can fill your space with immense positivity.

      • WOW Stress Melt Essential Oil has a fruity-floral aroma that creates a tranquil aura and soothes a hyperactive mind. When dispensed through a candle diffuser or applied topically in pea-sized quantities (properly diluted), the oil works wonders. As it begins to waft around your home, you will start to feel calmer and more mindful of your surroundings and your stress feels much more manageable. 

      You can explore a wide range of essential oils for stress and anxiety in the WOW catalog.


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      Radhika Bhatia

      I'm a content writer, copywriter, and blogger with a background in marketing, planning, and eCommerce. I specialize in beauty writing, including skincare, cosmetics, wellness, aesthetics, and health. Classically trained and idea-savvy, I love living in the present.

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