Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes areas of the skin to lose color or pigmentation. It’s not contagious and can occur on any part of the body.
About 1.4% of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with vitiligo, according to a 2020 global survey evaluating the prevalence of vitiligo in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Vitiligo is a skin condition that occurs when the cells responsible for your skin color called melanocytes are destroyed. When melanocytes no longer produce skin pigment or melanin, areas of your skin lose color or turn white.
Areas of lost pigment can develop anywhere on your body,
- sun-exposed areas, like the hands, feet, arms, and face
- inside the mouth or other mucus membranes
- back of the eye
- within the hearing system of the ear
Your hair may also turn gray or white if the areas involved have hair.
Even though vitiligo can affect many different parts of the body, it’s not contagious. A person with vitiligo cannot pass it on to someone else.
Treatments for vitiligo aim to restore color balance to your skin. Some treatments aim to add pigment, while others remove it.
Your treatment options will vary according to how the condition specifically affects your body and how your body responds to the treatment. Your doctor might prescribe medical treatments, surgical treatments, or a combination of both.
It’s important to contact your doctor if you start experiencing treatment side effects. They may adjust your dosage or provide alternatives.
You’ll usually need at least 3 months of treatment before you can see its effects. According to a
- Topical creams: Topical creams, such as corticosteroids and calcineurin inhibitors (anti-inflammatory creams),
can helprestore color to white patches in the initial stages. Others help slow the growth.
- Prescription oral medications: Drugs such as steroids may be effective in treating vitiligo.
- Ultraviolet A (PUVA) light therapy: This requires you to take a type of photosynthesizer called psoralen as a pill or apply it to your skin as a cream. Then, your doctor exposes you to UVA light to activate it. The activation process helps restore color to your skin.
- Narrowband ultraviolet B light therapy: This is an alternative to traditional PUVA therapy. It provides a more focused type of light therapy.
- Excimer laser treatment: This treatment helps with small areas of vitiligo patches and can take less than 4 months, two to three times per week.
- Depigmentation: Your doctor may recommend depigmentation if more than 30-40% of your body is affected and you want to balance your skin. Depigmentation focuses on fading the rest of the skin to match the areas that have lost color. You’ll apply a medication like monobenzone as your doctor prescribes. Though it can take up to 2 years to see effectiveness, this treatment tends to be permanent.
Surgical options are available when medications and light therapy do not work. Your doctor can recommend surgical options if your vitiligo patches are stable and sun damage did not cause your condition.
According to a
- Skin grafting: Your surgeon transfers healthy, pigmented skin to depigmented areas. Skin grafting using blisters is another option involving creating a blister on unaffected skin and transferring the top of the blister to another area.
- Melanocyte transplants: Your doctor removes a healthy tissue sample, cultures the melanocytes, and then transplants the cells to depigmented areas.
- Micropigmentation: Your doctor will tattoo pigment into your skin.
Other therapies and management options
Even if you are receiving medical treatment for vitiligo, the results can be slow. So it is advisable to incorporate the following:
- Sunscreen: Reducing sun exposure can help keep your skin even. It is also important to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, as areas without pigmentation are susceptible to sun damage.
- Cosmetics: Makeup or self-tanning lotions can help even out your skin tone. You may prefer self-tanning lotions because the effect lasts longer, even with washing.
- Managing mental health: A 2018 literature review suggests that medication and psychotherapy can improve your quality of life. Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing negative mental health effects.
Vitiligo can cause several symptoms, including:
- white patches on the skin
- premature graying or whitening of the hair, eyebrows, facial hair, or eyelashes
- loss of pigment in the mucous membranes, including the inner lining of the nose and lips
A 2016 review involved looking at PubMed research located through using the keywords “psychosocial” and either “acne,” psoriasis,” or “vitiligo.” One study showed that more than
However, the specific areas that are affected may vary depending on the type of vitiligo. According to a 2020 article review, types of vitiligo include:
- Nonsegmental vitiligo (NSV): A condition in which the skin, hair, and mucous membranes gradually lose their pigment. There are several subtypes:
- Focal vitiligo: Patches tend to be smaller and occur in only a few areas of the body. These will usually stay the same size for at least 1–2 years.
- Acrofacial vitiligo: This form of vitiligo primarily affects the face, hands, and sometimes feet.
- Generalized vitiligo: Widespread white patches appear symmetrically on both sides of the body. This is the most common pattern and can affect pigment cells anywhere in the body. It often starts and stops many times over the course of a person’s lifetime. Along with acrofacial vitiligo, this is the most common subtype.
- Universal vitiligo: This is when the condition affects most of your skin surface and hair. It usually begins as generalized vitiligo and can then progress to universal.
- Mucosal vitiligo: This subtype affects mostly the mucous membranes of the mouth or genitals.
- Rare variants: These include leukoderma punctata (small spots on the skin), hypochromic vitiligo (affecting the scalp, face, trunk, and scalp, and occurring more commonly in people with darker skin), and follicular vitiligo (affecting hair).
- Segmental vitiligo (SV): White patches appear on one side of the body. Many times it continues for 6–24 months or so, then stabilizes, but may begin to progress again at any point. It tends to develop faster than NSV.
- Mixed vitiligo: This type has features of both NSV and SV.
It’s unknown exactly what causes vitiligo.
Most researchers believe that vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder because your body is attacking your own cells.
A 2016 manual chart review was conducted for 1,873 patients diagnosed with vitiligo and receiving treatment at a Detroit, Michigan, hospital over a 10-year period. Research results showed that about
Researchers noted that there were research limitations, including no control group, only one medical facility supplied data, and possible bias in the participant selection process.
Many autoimmune diseases may be associated with vitiligo, including:
- alopecia areata
- type 1 diabetes
- pernicious anemia
- Addison’s disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
Some experts also report vitiligo appearing after incidents of:
Is vitiligo a genetic disease?
Vitiligo doesn’t appear to be inherited, and many people with vitiligo don’t have a family history of the disorder.
According to a
Many times, vitiligo has few physical effects on the body. The most serious complications are in the ears and eyes, but these are not common.
The primary physical effect is that the loss of pigment increases your risk of sunburn. You can protect your skin by applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and wearing sun-protective clothing.
Because vitiligo is so visible, living with it can be distressing. Research shows that vitiligo can cause significant psychological effects.
According to a 2016 review of research articles,
A small 2020 literature review found that
If you have vitiligo and are feeling any of these negative effects, talk with your doctor or someone else you’re comfortable speaking with. Learning as much as you can about the disorder can be beneficial. It can also help to find a therapist who understands this skin condition and its impact on mental health can also be helpful.
During your visit, your doctor will
It’s important to tell your doctor about anything that could be a contributing factor, such as recent sunburn, premature graying of your hair, or any autoimmune diseases you may have. Also, let your doctor know if anyone else in your family has vitiligo or other skin diseases.
Your doctor may also use an ultraviolet lamp to look for vitiligo patches. The lamp, also known as a Wood’s lamp, helps your doctor look for differences between vitiligo and other skin conditions.
At times, your doctor may take a skin sample known as a biopsy. A lab will look at these samples. Skin biopsies can show if you still have pigment-producing cells in that area of your body.
Blood tests can help diagnose other problems that may go along with vitiligo, such as thyroid conditions, type 1 diabetes, or anemia.
Does vitiligo ever go away?
There’s currently no cure for vitiligo, but treatments can help restore some skin color. It’s important to note that after skin color is restored, it may fade over time. This means you may need to repeat the treatment.
Can you stop vitiligo from spreading?
While treatments cannot cure vitiligo, some may help slow its progression. This
What happens if vitiligo is left untreated?
In addition to a higher chance of sunburn and mood disorders, living with untreated vitiligo can increase your chance of sunburn, developing mood disorders, and experiencing disease progression.
Research on vitiligo has increased in the past years. Newer technology supports advances in genetic research so that we can understand how vitiligo works. You can also see the latest clinical trials over at ClinicalTrials.gov.
If you’re living with vitiligo, a support group can be a great resource. They give members the opportunity to express themselves. They provide a place to meet, talk with, and learn from others with the same condition.
You can also look at the #vitiligo hashtag on social media for stories of people embracing their appearance. One example is fashion model and activist Winnie Harlow, who calls herself a “vitiligo spokesmodel.”
If you have questions about vitiligo, talking with a healthcare provider can be a helpful first step.