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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:

REASONS FOR THE “SKUNK STRIPE” IN FICTION

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.

MYTH AND HISTORY – STRESS AND WHITE HAIR

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?

CLEAR REASONS IN REAL LIFE

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.

LESS CLEAR REASONS IN REAL LIFE

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

NOT ENTIRELY FICTIONAL

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.

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7 Comments

  1. 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! 😉

    • 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. 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!

    • 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. 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. 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 😉

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