Vitiligo is a skin condition marked by loss of skin color in patches. It can affect the skin and hair on any part of the body, even inside the mouth. Skin color is determined by melanin, and in those with vitiligo, melanin-producing cells die or stop functioning. This results in blotches of skin that are lighter than the surrounding skin.
Vitiligo can appear at any age, but most commonly presents itself before age 20. There are three main types of vitiligo: generalized (covering many parts of the body), segmental (only on one side of the body), and localized or focal (only affecting one or a few areas of the body).
Symptoms of vitiligo may include:
- Patchy loss of skin color, usually with sharp margins
- Premature whitening or graying of hair, including eyelashes, eyebrows, and beard
- Color loss in mucous membrane tissue, such as the mouth and nose
- Loss or change of color in the retina
Frequently Asked Questions
What Causes Vitiligo?
Unfortunately, doctors don’t quite know why vitiligo occurs. We do know that it happens when melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) die or stop functioning, and the result is white or very light patches of skin and hair. Vitiligo may be caused by family history, an improper immune response wherein the body attacks its own melanocytes, or trigger events such as sunburn, stress, or exposure to industrial chemicals.
Is There Treatment?
There are a handful of treatments available for vitiligo. As of now, there are no medications that can stop the process of vitiligo, but some treatments can restore lost skin tone.
If started early, topical corticosteroids may help regain some skin tone, although it can take several months of application before results are seen. Additionally, applying a plant-derived substance called psoralen when combined with exposure to UVA, UVB, or excimer light has been shown to return color to light patches of skin. Another option, for those with more widespread vitiligo, is depigmentation wherein a depigmenting agent is applied to the unaffected areas of the skin resulting in gradually lighter skin that blends with the vitiligo-affected patches.
More invasive measures can include skin grafting, blister grafting, and tattooing, or micro-pigmentation. These options are generally used if the affected areas are small, and carry higher risks of infection, scarring, cobblestone-like appearance, and failure of the area to recolor.
Are There Things I Should Do or Avoid?
As always, you should protect your skin from sun damage and artificial sources of UV light. We recommend that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Apply sunscreen generously and reapply every two hours or more if you’re swimming or sweating. Although this won’t stop vitiligo, it can slow down the emergence of new patches.
We also recommend avoiding tattooing that isn’t treatment-related. Skin damage, like that caused by tattoos, can trigger new patches of vitiligo within two weeks.
If you have vitiligo and would like to explore treatment options with Dermgroup NYC, please call us for a consultation at (212) 673-5633.