Marie Antoinette syndrome refers to a situation where someone’s hair suddenly turns white (canities). The name of this condition comes from folklore about the French queen Marie Antoinette, whose hair supposedly turned white suddenly before her execution in 1793.

Graying of the hair is natural with age. As you grow older, you may start to lose the melanin pigments that are responsible for your hair color. But this condition is not age-related. It’s related to a form of alopecia areata — a type of sudden hair loss. (It’s also important to note that, regardless of whether the stories are true, Marie Antoinette was only 38 years old at the time of her death).

While it’s possible for your hair to turn white in a relatively short amount of time, this isn’t likely to happen within minutes, as is suggested by supposed historical accounts. Learn more about the research and causes behind Marie Antoinette syndrome, and whether you need to see your doctor.

Research doesn’t support the theory of sudden hair whiteness. Still, tales of such incidents from history continue to run rampant. Besides the infamous Marie Antoinette, other famous figures in history have also reportedly experienced sudden changes in their hair color. One notable example is Thomas More, who was said to have experienced a sudden whitening of his hair before his execution in 1535.

A report published in the also notes witness accounts of bombing survivors from World War II experiencing a sudden whitening of the hair. Sudden hair color changes have additionally been noted in literature and science fiction, usually with psychological undertones.

Still, as Dr. Murray Feingold writes in , no research to date suggests that you can lose your hair color over night. Indeed, one article published in the argues that historical accounts of sudden white hair were likely linked to alopecia areata or to the washing out of temporary hair dye.

Cases of so-called Marie Antoinette syndrome are often thought to be caused by an autoimmune disorder. Such conditions change the way your body reacts to healthy cells in the body, inadvertently attacking them. In the case of Marie Antoinette syndrome-like symptoms, your body would stop normal hair pigmentation. As a result, though your hair would continue to grow, it would be gray or white in color.

There are other possible causes of premature graying or whitening of the hair that might be mistaken for this syndrome. Consider the following conditions:

  • Alopecia areata. This is one of the most notable causes of pattern baldness. The symptoms of alopecia areata are thought to be caused by underlying inflammation. This causes the hair follicles to stop new hair growth. In turn, existing hair may also fall out. If you already have some gray or white hairs, the bald patches from this condition can make such pigment losses more apparent. This can also create the impression that you have new pigment loss, when in fact it’s now just more prominent. With treatment, new hair growth can help mask gray hairs, but it can’t necessarily stop your hair from gradually turning gray.
  • Genes. If you have a family history of prematurely graying hair, chances are that you could be at risk. According to the , there’s also a gene called IRF4 that could play a role. A genetic predisposition to graying hair can make it challenging to reverse hair color changes.
  • Hormonal changes. These include thyroid disease, menopause, and drops in testosterone levels. Your doctor can prescribe medications that can help even out your hormone levels and perhaps stop further premature graying.
  • Naturally darker hair. Both people of naturally dark and light hair colors are prone to graying. However, if you have dark hair, any form of hair whitening looks more noticeable. Such cases aren’t reversible, but may be managed with all-over hair coloring, as well as touch-up kits. According to the , it can take over a decade for all hairs to turn gray, so this is not a sudden event.
  • Nutritional deficiencies. A lack of vitamin B-12 is particularly to blame. You can help reverse nutrition-related graying by getting enough of the nutrient(s) you’re lacking. A blood test can help confirm such deficiencies. It’s also important to work with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian.
  • Vitiligo. This autoimmune disease causes pigment losses in your skin, where you may have noticeable white patches. Such effects may extend to your hair pigment, making your hair turn gray, too. Vitiligo is difficult to treat, especially in children. Among the options are corticosteroids, surgery, and light therapy. Once treatment stops the depigmentation process, you may notice fewer gray hairs over time.

Marie Antoinette syndrome has been historically portrayed as a being caused by sudden stress. In the cases of Marie Antoinette and Thomas More, their hair color changed in prison during their final days.

However, the underlying cause of white hair is much more complex than a single event. In fact, your hair color changes are likely related to another underlying cause.

Stress itself doesn’t cause sudden hair whitening. Over time, chronic stress may lead to premature gray hairs, though. You may also experience hair loss from severe stress.

Graying hair isn’t necessarily a health concern. If you notice premature grays, you can mention them to your doctor at your next physical. However, you might want to make an appointment if you’re also experiencing other symptoms, such as hair loss, bald patches, and rashes.

Premature gray or white hair is certainly a cause for investigation. Even though hair can’t turn white overnight, tales of Marie Antoinette’s hair whitening before her death and other similar stories continue to endure. Rather than focus on these historical stories, it’s important to focus on what medical experts now understand about graying hair and what you can do about it.