With Halloween fast approaching, it’s the season for horror, fright and fear. A popular tale told in many cultures is that a person’s hair can turn white overnight from excessive fear. Is it the stuff of legend, folklore and myth, or is there any science to back it up?
Can Your Hair Turn White From Fear?
The image of a person’s hair turning white from fear persists in popular culture, literary works and even in a few older medical journals. Despite this persistence, it’s impossible for the hair on someone’s head to radically change color overnight. This is because once your hair leaves your head, it’s dead and cannot be influenced by any psychological or physiological processes inside your body (like being frightened or scared).
However, the mythology does have some roots in science. While extreme fear or being frightened can’t turn your hair white overnight, there is a medical condition that could make people think it has.
Roots In Science?
There is an autoimmune condition, known as alopecia areata, which can attack hair follicles. This disorder causes pigmented hair to fall out. Follicles that are black, brown, red, or blonde are susceptible to the disease while follicles that produce gray and white non-pigmented hairs are left completely untouched. Because stress is a factor in autoimmune diseases, it can trigger the disorder, making a person appear as if their hair turned completely white overnight.
If a person were to have a rough night, get in a heated argument, or experience a life or death situation, the disease could be triggered. The person would wake up with most of their pigmented hair gone, leaving only the gray or white hair. This would make it look like the person was frightened so bad that their hair turned white.
Because we’ve only recently begun to understand autoimmune diseases, it’s no surprise that the myth has a long history. The first documented case of sudden hair whitening was in the Talmud in 83 A.D. The victim was a 17 year old boy who had been appointed chief of the main Israeli Talmudic academy. His hair turned white virtually overnight. The boy claimed his sudden white hair was “a consequence of strenuous studying.”
Marks, James G; Miller, Jeffery (2006). Lookingbill and Marks’ Principles of Dermatology (4th ed.). Elsevier Inc. ISBN 1-4160-3185-5.
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Alopecia Areata. Dermatologic Disease Database.
Alopecia Areata at Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy Professional Edition