A person's hair and eyelash color is determined by the amount of melanin present in each hair. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes, which are present in hair follicles. When melanocytes stop functioning properly, hair often becomes transparent and looks gray or white. White eyelashes are usually caused by melanocytes that are not working like they should. This can be caused by aging, and certain medical conditions, such as albinism, vitiligo, and blepharitis.
As people age, melanocytes stop producing as much melanin, so the hair turns gray or white. The age that a person's graying hair becomes noticeable varies, but it typically begins in middle age. Eyelashes usually take a little longer to lose their color, but they are not uncommon in individuals in their 70s or older. They may not be shockingly white, however, and a more probable cause of white eyelashes is typically a medical condition.
Albinism is often the first thing that will come to most people's minds when they think of white skin or eyelashes. People with this congenital disorder, commonly referred to as albinos, are born without the ability to produce the proper amount of melanin. This usually results in a lack of pigment in their hair, skin, and eyes. Most have white eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair, along with white skin and pinkish eyes.
Vitiligo is another medical disorder that, unlike albinism, usually develops later in life. This chronic condition is typically characterized by patches of skin and hair that lose pigment and turn white. These white patches often start on a person's extremities and can gradually get larger over time. A vitiligo sufferer's hands and face are usually the first place that the patches appear, especially around the eyes and mouth. White eyelashes, as well as white eyebrows, are not unheard of in people with this disease.
Often considered to be an autoimmune disease, vitiligo is thought to be caused by a person's immune system attacking and destroying a person's melanin. Some evidence suggests that the condition is hereditary. Minor cases often need no treatment other than covering the light spots of skin and hair, but more severe cases of this disease, the depigmentation may be reversed with corticosteroid creams.
Blepharitis is an infestation of bacteria on a person's eyelashes. Many times, this is caused by poor eye hygiene, and symptoms include eye styes, irritated eyelids, crusty formations on the eyelashes, ingrown eyelashes, and loss of eyelashes. In more severe cases of this condition, loss of pigment in the lashes could result in them turning white.
The treatment for white eyelashes varies depending on what has caused the loss of pigment. There is almost nothing that can be done to reverse gray or white hair that is caused primarily by old age. Aging eyelashes, however, can often be covered up with either mascara or an eyelash dye. These dyes are available in a number of shades to match a person's real hair color, and they can be applied by a professional or using an at-home kit.