What Is Poliosis? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
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Poliosis, or poliosis circumscripta, refers to patches or streaks of white hair. It occurs due to a lack of melanin in any area of the body where there is hair. It is possible to inherit poliosis. It may also occur as a result of genetic or acquired conditions that result in the breakdown of pigment cells.

When poliosis occurs as a triangle of white hair near the front and middle of the scalp, it is known as “white forelock.”

Read on to learn more about the cause of poliosis. This guide also looks at risk factors, treatment options, diagnosis, and more.

Poliosis meaning

Poliosis is a localized patch or streak of white hair. It is a result of a lack of pigmentation from melanin. It can occur in any hairy area of the body, including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard.

What does poliosis look like?

A person is getting a haircut.
Betsie Van der Meer/Getty Images

Poliosis appears as a cluster of white hairs. It is localized and most commonly occurs on the scalp. However, it can also appear in other areas of the body where there is hair, such as the eyelashes, eyebrows, or beard.

In some cases, poliosis may occur alongside leukoderma. Leukoderma refers to localized areas of white or depigmented skin as a result of a loss of epidermal melanin.

What causes poliosis?

Poliosis occurs when there is a lack of the pigment melanin in the hair shafts. Learn about melanin.

You may inherit a defect in the production of melanin. Alternatively, poliosis can occur if there is a destruction of the pigment cells.

Genetic conditions that make you more likely to have poliosis include:

Acquired conditions, or conditions that you can develop over time, that make you more likely to have poliosis include:

  • vitiligo
  • halo nevus
  • alopecia areata
  • leukoderma associated with melanoma
  • Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease
  • trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia

Other possible causes and risk factors associated with poliosis include:

  • the use of certain topical medications, such as imiquimod, bimatoprost, and chloramphenicol
  • systemic medications, such as chloroquine and acitretin
  • shingles
  • injury
  • radiation therapy

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about medications or other risk factors for poliosis.

How do doctors treat poliosis?

You may require treatment for the underlying cause of poliosis. If it occurs as a side effect of a medication, stopping or changing your medication with your doctor’s advice may restore pigmentation in the hair bulbs.

More research is needed into other treatments that can reverse the lack of melanin in the hair shafts.

A 2016 study discusses treating eyebrow poliosis as part of treatment for vitiligo, which is a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Treatments included laser therapy, topical ointments, and low dose oral prednisolone.

A 2013 study found that epithelial grafting as part of treatment for vitiligo also resulted in the recoloring of poliosis-affected hair. The study suggests that this occurred as a result of stimulation of melanocyte stem cells, which, in turn, provided hair bulbs with new mature melanocytes. These are cells that form melanin.

Natural treatments such as coconut oil and lemon may help improve the strength of poliosis-affected hair, according to one 2020 paper. The same article also mentions that people with poliosis often consider dying their hair in the first instance.

If you do decide to dye your hair, it is important to carry out any necessary patch tests beforehand. If you are using a box dye to color your hair at home, follow the instructions in the enclosed leaflet or on the packet to reduce the risk of side effects such as contact dermatitis, damage to hair, or hair loss.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact a doctor if you have concerns about poliosis. They will be able to advise on any treatments available to you.

You should also contact your doctor if you do not know the cause of poliosis. It may be a sign of an underlying health condition.

How do doctors diagnose poliosis?

Your doctor may be able to diagnose poliosis by taking a full medical history and performing a physical examination.

They may also arrange a skin biopsy to confirm a lack of melanin in the hair bulbs. This can also help rule out other possible causes of white hair, such as:

  • hair bleach
  • white piedra, which is a fungal infection
  • conditions that cause hair whitening in larger areas, including:
    • albinism
    • Griscelli syndrome
    • Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome
    • Chediak-Higashi syndrome

Learn about biopsies.

Depending on any other symptoms you present, your doctor may also arrange other tests to confirm the cause of poliosis. Your doctor will be able to discuss these tests with you at your appointment.

Poliosis vs. vitiligo: What is the difference?

Poliosis refers to localized patches of white hair. It occurs as a result of a lack of pigmentation.

Vitiligo, on the other hand, is an autoimmune condition that results in a loss of color in areas of the skin. The immune system destroys cells that lead to pigmentation, resulting in lighter patches of skin.

Some people may experience both poliosis and vitiligo.

Learn more about vitiligo. You can also learn about other causes of white patches on the skin.

What are the complications of poliosis?

Although the loss of pigmentation and resultant white hair does not cause any complications directly, it is important to contact your doctor about poliosis to avoid the risk of complications from untreated conditions.

Poliosis can occur as a result of genetic or acquired conditions. In some cases, it can also be a sign of skin cancer, in which it occurs as a result of melanoma-associated leukoderma.

It is important to receive a diagnosis for the cause of poliosis so that you can begin any necessary treatments.

Summary

Poliosis is a localized area of white hair. It occurs either due to a lack of melanin pigment or as a result of damage to pigment cells.

More research is needed into possible treatments for poliosis. Some studies suggest that treating vitiligo, which is an autoimmune condition wherein the skin loses pigmentation, may also help treat poliosis.

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about poliosis. They will be able to carry out a physical examination and order any tests necessary to confirm the underlying cause.

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 27
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