What Is Vitiligo? A Dermatologist Explains the Skin Condition

Vitiligo: Causes, Treatments, and More
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  • Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition that affects the melanin in your skin.
  • It causes white patches to develop in certain areas and can occur in all skin tones.
  • A dermatologist answers all of your questions about vitiligo, including how to treat it.

Of the skin conditions and disorders out there, vitiligo remains somewhat of a mystery to many. Though people may know what it looks like, many have very limited knowledge of what causes it or how to care for it. Vitiligo impacts the melanin in the skin, causing lighter patches to appear, and doesn’t necessarily present right away at birth (although it can).

Vitiligo affects about one per cent of the population, according to Medline Plus, and is fairly easy for dermatologists to diagnose. Though it’s not painful or harmful to the body in any way, there are a few things people with vitiligo should keep in mind to help manage the condition.

Keep reading to get all of the most common questions about vitiligo answered by a board-certified dermatologist, like what it is, how to care for it, and skin treatments that can help.

What Is Vitiligo?

To explain what vitiligo is, you first need to understand what melanin is. “Skin, hair, and eye colour come from a pigment called melanin,” Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL, tells POPSUGAR. “It is produced by melanocytes, the skin’s pigment-producing cells, located in the epidermis.” Vitiligo is a disease that affects the melanin in certain areas of the skin, resulting in those areas losing their colour and often turning white or extremely light.

It can occur in all skin tones, but it’s more visible in those with dark skin because they have more melanin. “It affects approximately one per cent of the population,” Dr Hartman says. “Although vitiligo might develop in anyone at any life span, it most commonly develops in people ageing 10 to 30 years.”

Winnie Harlow has talked about her experience with vitiligo
Image: Getty/Leon Bennett / Stringer

What Causes Vitiligo?

As Dr. Hartman notes, vitiligo can happen at any point in someone’s lifetime. “Vitiligo occurs when the melanocytes are attacked by the body’s immune system,” he says. “It is an autoimmune disorder that only affects skin, hair, and eyes.” Genetics, in addition to other external factors, can cause it. “People with vitiligo may have other immune disorders like psoriasis, alopecia areata, and thyroid disease.”

Can Vitiligo Spread?

After your initial diagnosis, it’s possible for vitiligo to spread to other areas of the body, but it’s not a guarantee. Because there is no cure or treatment, it’s impossible to predict or stop that from happening. However, vitiligo is not something that can spread to other people.

How to Care For Vitiligo

If you have vitiligo, there are a few things you should avoid or be careful of, as they are known triggers and can exacerbate the condition. This includes sunburns, skin trauma, contact with certain chemicals, and even stress.

“Vitiligo is not painful; however, it can lead to painful sunburns on the discoloured patches of the skin,” Dr Hartman says. “It is essential to take every safety measure to protect affected skin from sun exposure like the use of sunscreen, wearing fully covering clothes, and staying out of the sun during the strongest hours of the sunlight.”

Supermodel Winnie Harlow has vitiligo and often speaks about a traumatic modelling experience involving the sun, which ended up inspiring her to launch Cay Skin, her sun-care line. “I ended up getting really burnt,” she previously told POPSUGAR. “It was really damaging to my skin and to my vitiligo, and I had to have doctors come in and give me injections for the inflammation and for pain.”

In general, a decrease in melanin makes you more susceptible to sunlight and sun-related skin conditions, such as sunburns, skin cancer, and signs of premature ageing. Dr Hartman explains that stressful events for the skin can even cause itchiness in some people before the initiation of depigmentation and white patches appear.

Vitiligo Treatments

There is no cure for vitiligo yet, but there are different treatments that can help. “Some of these include topical steroids, topical immunomodulators, topical JAK-inhibitors, narrow-band ultraviolet light therapy, skin grafts, and depigmentation in severe cases,” Dr Hartman says.

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