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A Streak of White Hair: Fantasy or Reality?

Rogue X-Men Days of Future PastI was recently reading a fantasy romance novel where the main character pushed himself to the limits of his magical abilities and nearly died. Afterward, he was left with a streak of white in his long black hair (if you don’t mind spoilers, this is the book).

I’ve seen this before many times in fantasy, sci-fi and other stories – the X-Men character Rogue is the first that comes to mind, but other film characters like Cruella de Vil, Sweeney Todd, and The Bride of Frankenstein also had white patches of hair, and so do quite a few characters from manga, comics, and books. This got me thinking, do real people ever get these? And if they do, why? Do they ever suddenly appear (without the deliberate application of bleach), like they do in stories?

The attempt to answer these questions led me down a bit of a rabbit hole of researching, and while there is quite a lot of uncertainty and myth surrounding the topic, I did emerge with some answers:


In popular culture this distinctive streak is often called a skunk stripe. Before determining its causes in real life, I thought I’d take a quick look at its causes in fiction.

Because It Looks Good (No Cause Mentioned)

Bride of FrankensteinBlack and white films and shows like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Walking Dead (1936), The Return of Dr. X (1939), and The Munsters (1964) featured characters with shock of white hair, probably because it looked distinctive and striking, especially in black and white. As far as I can tell, that seems to be the reason the Bride of Frankenstein was given her famous stripe, which probably inspired other films.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd continues this tradition, though Depp claimed it was from a trauma in the character’s past. With Cruella de Vil the visual link to the fur in 101 Dalmatians is rather obvious. It seems the skunk stripe has been heavily used for villains, monsters, and dangerous-but-sexy characters.

Because of a Head Injury

Sometimes the white hair comes from a physical injury, for example Fitz from Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy takes on the name Thomas Badgerlock, referring to a white streak he developed in his hair due to a wound.

Because of Shock or Trauma

Bellatrix LestrangeRogue from the X-Men movie gets her white streak during a near-death experience – specifically the scene where Magneto captures her and uses her to power his mutant conversion machine (though in the comic how she got the streak is still contested). It’s implied that being nearly drained of her life and power has left a permanent mark. In A Nightmare on Elm Street some of Nancy’s hair turns white, the implication being this is either from fear or madness.

Because It’s Hereditary

Some stories suggest a hereditary link, with parents and children, or siblings, sharing the distinctive shocks of white hair. This seems to be the case in the Harry Potter films, with Bellatrix Lestrange and her sister Narcissa Malfoy both sporting light highlights in their otherwise dark hair (though Bellatrix’s is subtler and not always visible). This is, however, never explicitly discussed in the films, and isn’t mentioned in the books.


No doubt some of these fictional white streaks are also influenced by the many stories and myths that exist of people’s hair turning suddenly white.

Marie Antoinette by Joseph DucreuxPerhaps the most famous historical tale of hair turning white due to stress is Marie Antoinette. It is said her hair turned completely white before her execution. While this is commonly believed to be a myth, Marie Antoinette Syndrome now refers to the phenomenon of someone’s hair turning white very quickly.

The earliest recorded mention of the phenomena is in the Talmud, where a young Jewish scholar develops 18 rows of white hair due to studying too intensely. The hair of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his favourite wife after she died, also reportedly turned white in the year after her death.

But are these just myths, or is there some truth to them?


It turns out that in the real world, having white patches of hair is called poliosis. It happens when some hair follicles lack or have less of the pigment melanin, so grow out lighter than others.

Inheriting the White Forelock

Vitiligo and poliosis by culinary123Poliosis can have several causes, many of them genetic, like piebaldism (a condition characterised by the absence of melanin-producing cells called melanocytes) and Waardenburg Syndrome. It can be developed later in life or be present from birth – if it runs in your family, it’s often called a hereditary Mallen Streak. People with the skin condition vitiligo – believed to be caused by genetic susceptibility and triggers such as auto-immune responses – sometimes have these white patches too.

So the idea of a person being born with a shock of white hair (often called a white forelock if it’s near the forehead) or developing one is not fictional at all, and the idea that it might run in a family is plausible.

Injury or Medication

There are also reports of poliosis stemming from other causes such as injuries, infections or medications. So the white locks of characters like Fitz, caused by a head wound, are not as mysterious and magical as they might seem.


Sweeny ToddNow here’s where things get interesting, and more uncertain. As mentioned above, many fictional characters get their white streaks after enduring a trauma, such as a terrible fright or traumatic experience, having their body put under intense stress (e.g. having their magic drained or nearly dying).

The link, however, between stress or psychological trauma and the sudden appearance of white hair in real life (the medical term for this accelerated whitening is canities subita) is more contested, because even though there are plenty of reported cases and anecdotes, the exact causes are not clear.

A Sudden Whitening

The idea of hair whitening due to a traumatic experience is especially contested when the whitening happens in a short space of time, e.g. overnight, because our current understanding is that the hair follicle must grow out white (see this BBC article for a more detailed discussion), which can take months. It’s not understood how a whole hair follicle could simply turn white overnight, however there are some theories:

1. The Coloured Hair Falls Out – One theory is that people are affected by sudden hair loss, a condition called alopecia ariata, which only affects pigmented hair – so the pigmented hair falls out and the white hair remains. This article gives a few reasons why this might happen, including hormones, medication, or stress. However, this doesn’t explain cases where there is no hair loss, or where the tips of the hair go white first.

2. Air in the HairAnother study surveyed recorded cases of sudden hair whitening, including several where no hair loss was reported. Their conclusions were that hair loss does not explain all cases, especially ones where hair turned white and then even returned to its normal colour again afterward. They suggest the inclusion of air into the hair shafts might have something to do with it, but say more research is needed.

So basically, we have some ideas, but we don’t really know. In fact, another fascinating thing in all of this is that even the underlying cause for our hair turning white as we age seems to still not be fully understood. This Scientific American article does suggest some good theories to do with free radicals, and also gives a good explanation of how hair grows and the mechanics of what makes it turn white. It points out that while there is no direct proven link between stress and greying hair, scientists do think stress may be involved in the acceleration of general greying.

Cruella De Vil


So the idea of those trendy or striking white streaks in characters’ hair is not all that made-up – but whether such a streak can instantly appear in real life, like it does in the movies and books, is less certain.

Since this is fantasy fiction we’re talking about, of course anything is possible, and it might seem pointless to look into the plausibility of the skunk stripe. But I always find it fascinating when there’s a kernel of truth, or myth, amidst the magic.

Title image by avvart.



  1. Avatar Alexi says:

    Oooo, yes! I love that book you linked to. Grace Draven crafted a wonderful read and his shock of white hair fit the story well. And, thanks to your sleuthing, I’ll put into the category of entirely possible! 😉

    • Avatar Nicola says:

      Yes it was a great read, I’m glad you know it too! He was a really interesting and unorthodox character, and he certainly provided the perfect white-streak-after-traumatic-magical-experience example.

  2. Avatar pkgreen says:

    How interesting! My dad went fully gray at age 27, and I’ve been sporting a white forelock since I was around 13 (I’ve also heard it called a sorceror’s lock, which is a bit more flattering than skunk stripe), so I guess my family is in the hereditary camp. I always thought the whole hair shaft going white was bull, but I hadn’t seen the air theory before. Hair is mysterious. Thanks for the addition to my to-read, pile, as well!

    • Avatar Nicola says:

      Oo I love ‘sorcerer’s lock’, that definitely needs to be the name for it – much better than skunk stripe! Cool you have one yourself. Hair really is mysterious, there still seems to be so much we don’t know about it.

  3. Great facts comparing the fictional to the reality! I love that they mirror each other in a lot of respects… if only my white hair was growing in in such a stylish fashion though!!

  4. Avatar Nicola says:

    Yes there does seem to be a lot of overlap between fiction and reality (and urban legend) for this, which is really interesting. And it would be great if we could choose to channel our white hairs into one fashionable streak!

  5. Avatar Reetta R says:

    My husband has black hair and his forelock turned white in his early 20s for no particular reason. The rest of his hair wasn’t affected and he started going white after turning 40. Clearly being married and having kids was starting to take it’s toll 😉

  6. Avatar Michael says:

    One of the greatest characters with that white streak is Polgara the Sorceress from the 13 David Eddings books that start with the Belgariad series.

  7. Avatar Horatio says:

    White streaks in hair are a hereditary condition caused by a lack of pigment. It’s commonly called a Malled streak but it’s technical name is Poliosis.

    I should know cause I have one. It’s only small but quite noticeable in my brown hair, it’s normally buried underneath the rest of my hair but every time I get a short haircut I get asked whether I know that there’s white paint in my hair

    • Avatar Amanda says:

      I have one! But can find no basis for genetics in any known family, everyone else just eventually went gray all over. Mine is exactly where Sweeney Todd’s is and it appeared right after giving birth to my second child. I have naturally very dark hair and mine went white (some people’s are more gray). The doctor’s believe I had a small stroke during delivery because she was born so quickly and without my water breaking (en-caul) which is also fairly rare outside of c-sections.

    • Avatar Amanda says:

      While more common as a genetic/hereditary trait, it does happen to people with no family history as well.

  8. Avatar Steph says:

    This is a great article!

    I can confirm they are fact as the women in my family get a single badgerlock at the front left of the hairline (my left) at a young age. I got mine at 25 and (having to invest the time and money dying it since) was googling why we get these …

  9. Avatar Devilustangel says:

    Sooo … I have one … And I still remember the day I got it … It goes right down the center of the back of my head (had a conversation about it tonight and I will spend the next 7 hours of my work shift randomly researching this) ….

    My husband and I had a unique relationship … Anyways he was going out to do his thing one night and I mumbled under my breath “there is no point cause you wont be able to get off”
    He came home that night unable to perform … Looked at me and told me I wasnt a bitch I was a witch and I woke up the next morning with said streak – Now I have never practiced witchcraft or even really looked into it beyond what you see in movies- Years later we called it my skunk patch … I have tried dying it (lasts a day or 2 max) and cutting it out at the roots … And its still there – Now since I am a young widow and treasure all the memories I have from my late husband I enjoy it & why it actually showed up I have zero clue – Looks like much of the internet doesnt either

    Thanks – T

  10. Avatar Stephen Canales says:

    I ride a motorcycle that looks like something out of “the Road Warrior ” and while waiting on my burger at the local dairy bar I saw my reflection. I have a grey streak that begins at the front right (between the center and temple) side like Sweeney Todd. I reminded myself of the villain who terrorized Mad Max. I began to recall that there are several villains with skunk strips. I decided to find out how many there are and why they all share their distinctive features. Your article was my first stop. Thanks, I found it very interesting and somewhat enlightening.

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