All About Marie Antoinette Syndrome (Canities Subita)

What is this Marie Antoinette Syndrome?

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

Graying of the hair is natural with our age. As you grow older you may start to lose the melanin pigments that are responsible for hair color. But this Marie Antoinette syndrome condition is not age-related. This condition is 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 going to happen within minutes, as is suggested by supposed historical accounts. Learn more about the symptoms and causes behind Marie Antoinette syndrome, and when you need to see the doctor.

While it might sound like something out of a fairy tale or story, several people really have claimed that their hair turns completely white overnight because of stress. In fact, the nickname given to the peculiar occurrence comes from one well-known example in history.

The Truth Behind the Marie Antoinette Syndrome

The name of this situation comes from folklore about the French queen Marie Antoinette, whose hair supposedly turned white before her execution in 1793.

French queen Marie Antoinette noticed that her hair was suddenly turning white. Although this story is just folklore, there may be some truth to it in regards to the Marie Antoinette Syndrome, a condition in which one’s hair abruptly turns white. To further explore this syndrome, Zhang et al. designed an experiment measuring the rate of hair greying in mice after experiencing acute stress in conjunction with the depletion of melanocyte stem cells.

Real Life examples

Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius was famously convicted of shooting dead his partner Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013 in what the ‘blade runner’ has always maintained was an accident. He insists he mistook his girlfriend, who was hiding in their bathroom, for an intruder and shot her through the door.

The 29-year-old is currently under house arrest at his South Africa home awaiting sentencing after having his 2014 manslaughter conviction, for which he has served one year in prison, upgraded to culpable homicide.

During the initial trial, Pistorius looked to have developed two small round patches of white hair. When he appeared before the judge recently, prior to his July 2016 sentencing, the patches were still clearly visible as can be seen here. These tumultuous years have placed the former sportsman under immense pressure and stress, which it is believed is likely to have led to Alopecia Areata, with the white regrowth following a bout of sudden hair loss.

Signs Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Marie Antoinette syndrome is a condition by the sudden, somewhat inexplicable, and usually permanent whitening of hair on the head or another part of the body.

Unlike the natural graying of hair that takes place as people get aged, Marie Antoinette syndrome has been reported in people of all ages, including the relatively young or old. The condition is also said to differ from the natural graying process in timing: most cases claimed to occur suddenly rather than gradually.
Doctors generally regard Marie Antoinette syndrome as the stories define it as being a myth not true. However, when medical professionals do encounter cases akin to the condition today, it’s usually referred to as canities Subita, which means “sudden gray hair”.

A 1957 review of literature on rapid whitening of the hair provided several anecdotes, though few of witnessed by medical professionals. The stories had common themes, including unexpected traumatic and/or life-threatening events (house fires, accidents, or the sudden death of a loved one).

Some people had other symptoms at the time their hair suddenly went white, such as hair loss or patches of discoloration on their skin. A few of them were thought to have specific conditions, such as alopecia or vitiligo.

More recent accounts of Marie Antoinette syndrome have had a more gradual than sudden onset. For example, in 2009 researchers at the University of Zurich wrote a short case study note on a female patient with alopecia areata. The 54-year-old’s hair turned suddenly white in the course of several weeks. However, unlike the legends and other cases, the woman was healthy, not under extreme stress, and hadn’t experienced a recent trauma.

While the case was unusual and went medically unexplained since it hadn’t happened overnight, doctors didn’t regard it as being impossible.

Also see, Overtraining: Signs, Cause, Prevention, And Solutions!

Cause of Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Marie Antoinette syndrome is caused by high levels of emotional stress, which causes less pigmentation of the hair.

One study (which requires scientific replication and verification) experimented with the phenomenon in mice found that stress caused white hair even if the immune system was suppressed and if the glands producing cortisol were removed. The study concluded that over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system was causing stem cells to stop producing pigment cells in hair follicles, which can cause hair fall.
Scholars suspect that the appearance of rapidly graying hair in the famous historical anecdotes was most likely attributed to some very simple causes. For example, prior to her execution Marie Antoinette had been imprisoned and would not have had access to cosmetics or hair fall.

In other cases, severe hair loss may have been to blame, Even young people (in their teens and 20s) can have gray or white hair in places. If the colored hair were to fall out or thin, the hair lacking in pigment would be more stark and visible.

It’s also important to understand how hair pigment works, Hair gets its color from melanin. One kind of melanin determines how dark the hair is while the other gives it undertones. Gradually, as people get aged, the body makes less melanin.
There may also be another key factor that leads to gray hair. Mouse studies have suggested that the cells responsible for making melanin might also produce hydrogen peroxide (which is commonly used to bleach hair).


The characteristic feature of Marie Antoinette Syndrome is the sudden appearance of white hair, which may be obvious to both the patient and their doctor.

The diagnosis meaning a doctor will exam a patient and ask questions about what was going on around the time they noticed changes to their hair. For example, a doctor asks about hair products (shampoo and others) used, medications and supplements being taken, potential environmental exposures, and food allergies.

A medical professional will also want to determine if someone has another health problem or condition, especially one that can affect hair and skin. As mentioned, conditions like alopecia and vitiligo may be linked to canities Subita (Marie Antoinette Syndrome).

Asking about other symptoms such as hair loss, skin discoloration, or signs of an autoimmune disease can help a doctor diagnose an underlying condition that could explain the change in a person’s hair color or hair fall.

Treatment of Marie Antoinette Syndrome

Most adults will have some white hair by the time they reach middle age, but when a person starts to go gray and how much white hair they get will be unique to each individual.

It’s considered normal for some people to start noticing white hair while they are still in their 20s. In fact, Caucasians tend to start going gray in their 30s, while Asians and African-Americans start when they are closer to their middle age.

Research has indicated, that starting to go gray earlier doesn’t necessarily mean someone will have more gray hair. Other factors, such as biological sex and even smoking habits, can also affect the rate of hair whitening.

If someone is diagnosed with an medical condition like alopecia, there are several different approaches to treatment, including steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs.

Also read, Dangers of Methylated Steroids.

Hair changes, including color, thickness, and quantity, is a normal (and for most people, inevitable) part of the aging process. It doesn’t generally require any type of medical treatment, but if someone is distressed by their hair changes, there are many innumerable cosmetic products available.

For someone who has experienced rapid, unexpectedly, or early hair whitening, the most available “treatment” is hair dye. The products are available in semi-permanent or permanent forms and come in just about any color hair.

There are many alternatives like henna, which doesn’t contain chemicals (like bleach) which are common in most traditional hair dyes.

When to see a doctor

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

The Bottom Line

Premature gray or white hair can be a cause for investigation. Even though hair can’t turn white overnight, it can take some weeks, 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 or doctors and follow their guidance, now understand about graying hair and what you can do about it.

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