1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Can Your Hair Turn White from Fright or Turn Gray Overnight?

By January 19, 2007

Follow me on:

Can your hair turn white overnight?
© Neil Gould, stock.xchng
You've heard tales of extreme fright or stress turning a person's hair suddenly gray or white overnight, but can it really happen? History records that the hair of some condemned prisoners [e.g., Thomas More (1535) and Marie Antoinette (1793)] turned white overnight before their executions. However, I am unaware of any modern reports of this happening. It's documented your apparent natural haircolor can change over the course of several weeks/months from conditions that affect your hormones (such as pregnancy) or from taking certain medications (like chemotherapy), but can you go gray overnight? Let's look at the chemistry of hair to answer the question.

Hair is a protein that gets its natural color from the presence of a pigment called melanin. Anyone who has bleached their hair can tell you it's chemically possible to render the melanin colorless. Therefore if your sudden fright has something to do with exposure to ionizing radiation or bleach, I can see white hair being a possible outcome, though less likely than baldness or death. Seriously, unless you are playing with toxic radiation or chemicals, you can't instantly change your hair color.

Can fear or stress or any extraordinary emotion change the color of your hair? Yes, but not instantly. Your psychological state has a significant impact on the hormones that can effect the amount of melanin deposited in each strand of hair, but the effect of emotion takes a long time to see. The hair you see on your head emerged from its follicle a long time ago. So, graying or any other color change is a gradual process, occurring over the course of several weeks, months, or years.

Your emotions can't instantly change the color of your hair, but it is possible you could turn gray overnight. How? A medical condition termed "diffuse alopecia areata" can result in sudden hair loss. The biochemistry of alopecia isn't well understood, but in people who have a mix of dark and gray or white hair, the uncolored hair is less likely to fall out. The result? A person can appear to go gray overnight. Although I didn't find any references on this, the implication to me is your hair thins or you become bald if you don't have any gray hair, which for some reason is less resistant to the effect. Sudden hair loss can be caused by certain drugs, medical conditions, or by sudden stress. It tends to occur over the course of several days/weeks, but the result is still dramatic.
How Hair Color Works | How Rigor Mortis Works
Add to Technorati Favorites


January 19, 2007 at 6:52 pm
(1) Tommy Biard says:

I had a friend in Jr High that was thrown from a hourse onto a wire supporting an electric pole. Her leg was almost cut off. Her hair turned gray within 2 days.

January 24, 2007 at 9:50 am
(2) kate says:

yes, i have heard of this…i don’t know how long this has been for your friend, Tommy, but how is she today? that was a traumatic experience.

January 26, 2007 at 9:44 am
(3) Dr Chris Gummer says:

the only way a persons head of hair can turn grey overnight (without bleaching) is for all the dark fibres to fall out and the grey ones to be spared. In fact, very few of the fibres are grey – they are normally white and the blend of dark and light fibres gives the overall appearance of grey. Conditions such as alopecia areata are known to affect dark hair more than white on the same head.

March 11, 2010 at 11:53 am
(4) Mac says:

Hair can certainly change color over a very short period… my beard will visibly lighten from brown to blond after just one day in the summer sun.

I suppose this falls into the “radiation” category but it certainly isn’t toxic exposure, at least not in the sense claimed by the article.

May 12, 2010 at 1:41 am
(5) apm says:

I have a question. Does/Can hair turn gray after being cut ?
Having seen a part of the seven tons of cut human hair that was on display in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp museum, I noticed that all of the hair I observed….I assumed that young and old underwent the same treatment…had varying shades of gray. For example, if a young woman’s dark brown hair was cut at the time of her arrest in the early 1940s, could the cut hair have turned gray after almost 70 years ?
Thank you for an explanation !

February 6, 2014 at 3:04 am
(6) Laurie says:

My grandmother was an American-born citizen of Norwegian ancestry who had blonde hair her whole life, until less than a week before she died when her hair turned entirely white. She was in her early 80′s when she died. How can her whole head of hair turn from blonde to white in less than a week? She had long hair, and her entire head of hair was white when less than a week before she died it was blonde.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.