Vitiligo is a skin condition marked by white patches on the skin. The condition is most common on the fingers and wrist and in the groin region as well as areas adjacent to body openings like the mouth and around the eyes. The patches can be quite obvious on people who have naturally dark skin pigmentation. This can cause a great deal of psychological distress, especially in people who have large areas of skin involved including the face.
What Causes It?
The white patches are areas of de-pigmentation where melanin is no longer produced. No one knows exactly why it happens, but most experts believe it’s an autoimmune condition, where the immune system destroys cells that produce melanin. People with this skin problem are more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases, especially autoimmune disease of the thyroid gland. There also seems to be a genetic component since it often runs in families. There’s some thought that skin injury or stress may play a role in triggering this skin disease.
Vitiligo is a frustrating condition to treat. For people who have only small areas of pigmentation and who also have fair skin, the white patches may not be extremely noticeable. In this case, simply wearing a sunscreen to prevent sun exposure may be enough. Sun protection is important for everyone, but it’s even more critical for people with vitiligo. People with this skin condition are more susceptible to sunburn and skin damage since their skin lacks melanin in areas. Plus, tanning makes the white patches more noticeable by contrast.
Choose a high-powered sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays to provide maximal sun protection. Wear it indoors and outdoors since UVA rays can penetrate glass.
In the early stages of vitiligo, dermatologists often prescribe topical corticosteroid medications to promote re-pigmentation of the affected areas. This may be effective early on. Steroid creams shouldn’t be used longer than 2 months since they can cause atrophy of the skin. Some dermatologists also prescribe topical creams that alter the skin’s immune response. The problem with these medications is that they may be absorbed, and suppress the immune system on a larger scale, thereby increasing the risk of certain cancers.
Phototherapy is another option for treating vitiligo. A photosensitizing agent called psoralen is used to make the involved areas more sensitive to ultraviolet light, so they’ll form pigment. Unfortunately, this treatment only works when small areas of skin are involved, and it increases the risk of sun damage and skin cancer. In addition, it requires a number of treatments over several months to a year. In severe cases where all else fails, some doctors recommend surgery to place grafts over the affected areas.
Fortunately, most people don’t have to resort to phototherapy or surgery. Tanning products and cosmetics formulated to cover imperfections and birthmarks can help. Sunless self tanners contains ingredients that react with skin proteins to produce a natural-looking bronze color to help hide de-pigmented areas.
The Bottom Line?
Vitiligo is a challenge to treat. Fortunately, there are cosmetic products, self-tanners and bronzers that can help to cover this frustrating skin problem.