Can Hair Turn White Overnight?

How Fear or Stress Changes Hair Color

kids screaming on a rollercoaster
Could you go gray overnight? Extreme fear or other stress actually can affect your hair color, though it's more likely your hair will just fall out. Petri Artturi Asikainen, Getty Images

You've heard tales of extreme fright or stress turning a person's hair suddenly gray or white overnight, but can it really happen? The answer is not completely clear, as medical records are sketchy on the subject. Certainly, it is possible for hair to turn white or gray rapidly (over the course of months) rather than slowly (over years).

Hair Blanching in History

Marie Antoinette of France was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. According to history books, her hair turned white as a result of the hardships she endured; according to an article in the Atlantic: "In June 1791, when a 35-year-old Marie Antoinette returned to Paris following the royal family’s failed escape to Varennes, she removed her cap to show her lady-in-waiting 'the effect which grief had produced upon her hair,' according to the memoirs of her lady-in-waiting, Henriette Campan." In another version of the story, her hair turned white the night before her execution. Still, others have suggested that the Queen's hair turned white simply because she no longer had access to hair dye. Whatever the reason, sudden whitening of hair was given the name Marie Antoinette syndrome.

More famous examples of super-fast hair whitening include:

  • Stories told of hair bleaching in the Talmud (thousands of years ago)
  • Sir Thomas More, as he awaited his execution in the Tower of London in 1535;
  • Survivors of bomb attacks during World War II
  • A man who, in 1957, had his hair and beard turn white over a period of weeks after a serious fall.

Can Fear or Stress Change Your Hair Color?

Any extraordinary emotion can change the color of your hair, but not instantly. Your psychological state has a significant impact on the hormones that can affect 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 months or years.

Some researchers have described situations in which individuals' hair has turned from blond to brown, or from brown to white, as a result of a traumatic experience. In some cases, the color returned to normal after a period of weeks or months; in other cases, it remained white or gray.

Medical Conditions That May Explain Hair Bleaching

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. 

Another medical condition called canities subita which is closely related to alopecia but may not involve the loss of as much hair. According to one research article, "Today, the syndrome is interpreted as an acute episode of diffuse alopecia areata in which the very sudden 'overnight' graying is caused by the preferential loss of pigmented hair in this supposedly immune-mediated disorder. This observation has led some experts to hypothesize that the autoimmune target in alopecia areata may be related to the melanin pigment system."