What is vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a long-term condition that causes pale, white patches to develop on the skin due to lack of a chemical called melanin.
Vitiligo can affect any area of your skin, but most commonly occurs on skin exposed to the sun, such as your face, neck and hands.
The condition varies from person to person. Some people only get a few small, white patches that progress no further. Other people get bigger white patches that join up across large areas of their skin.
There is no way of predicting how much of your skin will be affected. The white patches are usually permanent.
Read more about the symptoms of vitiligo.
Why does vitiligo happen?
Vitiligo occurs due to a lack of melanin in the affected areas of skin. Melanin, which is produced by specialised skin cells called melanocytes, gives your skin its colour and protects it from the sun.
It is not exactly clear what causes this lack of melanin, but it has been linked to problems with the immune system (autoimmune conditions) and nerve endings in the skin.
Certain things can increase your chances of developing vitiligo, such as a family history of the condition or having another autoimmune problem, like hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland).
Vitiligo is not caused by an infection and you cannot catch it from contact with someone who has it.
Read more about the causes of vitiligo.
How common is vitiligo?
In the UK, about 1 in 100 people develop vitiligo. It usually starts to appear at around 20 years of age, although it can occur at any age. Men and women are equally affected, as are people of different ethnicities.
Vitiligo can usually be identified by a doctor after a physical examination. You may also be asked questions about your family's medical history and if the problem is affecting your confidence.
In some cases, an ultraviolet lamp, known as a Wood's lamp, may be shone on your skin to examine it in more detail and rule out other skin conditions.
You may also be checked for symptoms of other autoimmune conditions, such as diabetes. Sometimes, blood tests are taken to check how well your thyroid gland is functioning.
Read more about diagnosing vitiligo.
How is vitiligo treated?
The white patches caused by vitiligo are usually permanent, although there are treatment options to improve the appearance of your skin.
If the patches are relatively small, skin camouflage cream may be used to cover them up.
In general, combination treatments, such as phototherapy (treatment with light) and medication, give the best results.
In some cases, treatment may restore pigment (colour) to your patches but the effect does not usually last. Treatment cannot stop the condition from spreading.
Read more about treating vitiligo.
Vitiligo can sometimes cause other problems.
Due to a lack of melanin, your skin will be more vulnerable to the effects of the sun. If it is not protected with a strong sun cream, then sunburn is likely.
Vitiligo may also lead to a lack of pigmentation in your eyes and a partial loss of hearing (hypoacusis).
Problems with confidence and self-esteem are common in people with vitiligo, particularly if the condition affects areas of frequently exposed skin.
Support groups can often help by putting you in contact with other people who have vitiligo. Your doctor may suggest a group in your area.
The main symptom of vitiligo is flat, white spots or patches on your skin.
The first white patch usually develops where the skin has been exposed to the sun.
Initially, the vitiligo may start as a patch of skin that is paler than the rest of your skin. Gradually the patch will become completely white. Sometimes the centre of a patch may be white with pale skin around it. In areas where there are blood vessels under the skin, the patch may be slightly pink rather than white.
The edges of the patch may be smooth or irregular. Sometimes the edges are inflamed (red) or there is hyperpigmentation (brownish discolouration of the skin).
Vitiligo does not cause physical discomfort to your skin, such as dryness, but patches may occasionally be itchy.
If you have vitiligo, the pale areas of your skin are more vulnerable to sunburn.
Areas commonly affected by vitiligo
The areas most commonly affected by vitiligo include:
- the skin around your mouth and eyes
- fingers and wrists
- inside your mouth
Sometimes vitiligo can develop where there are hair roots, such as on your scalp. The lack of melanin in your skin can turn the hair in the affected area white or grey.
Types of vitiligo
There are two main types of vitiligo:
- non-segmental vitiligo
- segmental vitiligo
In rare cases, it is possible for vitiligo to affect your whole body. This is known as universal or complete vitiligo.
In non-segmental vitiligo (also called bilateral or generalised vitiligo), the symptoms of vitiligo often appear on both sides of your body as symmetrical white patches. Symmetrical patches can appear on areas such as the:
- backs of your hands
Non-segmental vitiligo is the most common type of vitiligo, affecting up to nine out of 10 people with the condition.
Sometimes the white patches may only affect one area of your body. This is known as segmental, unilateral or localised vitiligo.
Segmental vitiligo is less common than non-segmental vitiligo, although it is more common in children. Segmental vitiligo usually starts earlier and affects three in 10 children who have vitiligo.
How the symptoms of vitiligo develop
If you have vitiligo, it is difficult to predict whether your condition will spread from the original patch or how fast it may spread, as it is different for everyone.
It is likely that more white patches will appear. For some people this can happen quickly. For others, the patches may stay the same for months or years.
If the white patches appear symmetrically on more than one part of your body, the condition may progress quite slowly, with periods when the patches do not change. If you have white patches on only one area of your body, the condition may progress more rapidly.
Vitiligo is caused by the lack of a skin pigment called melanin.
Melanin, which is produced by skin cells called melanocytes, gives your skin its colour.
If you have vitiligo, you do not have enough working melanocytes, so not enough melanin is produced in your skin. This causes white patches to develop on your skin or hair. It is not clear exactly why the melanocytes disappear from the affected areas of skin.
The causes of non-segmental and segmental vitiligo may be slightly different (read about the symptoms of vitiligo for more information about these types).
Non-segmental vitiligo, the most common type of vitiligo, is thought to be an autoimmune condition. This means that your immune system (the body’s natural defence system) does not work properly.
Instead of attacking foreign cells, such as viruses, your immune system produces antibodies (infection-fighting proteins) that attack your body’s own healthy cells and tissue.
If you have non-segmental vitiligo, your immune system produces antibodies that destroy the melanocyte skin cells that make melanin.
Vitiligo is associated with other autoimmune conditions, such as hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland).
Segmental vitiligo, the less common type of vitiligo, is thought to be caused by chemicals released from the nerve endings in your skin. These chemicals are poisonous to the melanocyte skin cells.
You may be at higher risk of developing non-segmental vitiligo if:
- someone in your family has it - around 20% of people with vitiligo know another family member who has it
- you have a family history of other autoimmune conditions – for example, one of your parents has pernicious anaemia (an autoimmune condition that affects your stomach)
- you have another autoimmune condition
- you have melanoma (a type of skin cancer) or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (a type of cancer of the lymphatic system)
- you have particular changes in your genes that are known to be linked to non-segmental vitiligo
It is possible that the vitiligo may be triggered by particular events, for example:
- stressful events, such as childbirth
- damage to your skin, such as severe sunburn or cuts (this is known as the Koebner response)
- exposure to certain chemicals – for example, at work
Vitiligo is not caused by an infection and you cannot catch it from someone else who has the condition.
Vitiligo can usually be diagnosed after a consultation with a doctor.
Your doctor should be able to identify vitiligo by its appearance, so tests are not usually needed. Your doctor will need to see all your patches to estimate how much of your body area is affected. They will also ask how long you have had the patches.
Your doctor may ask whether:
- there is a history of vitiligo in your family
- there is a history of other autoimmune conditions in your family
- you have injured the affected area of skin – for example, you have had sunburn or a severe rash there
- you tan easily in the sun, or whether you burn
- any areas have got better without treatment, or whether they are getting worse
- you have tried any treatments already
Your doctor may also ask about the impact that vitiligo has on your life. For example:
- how much it affects your confidence and self-esteem
- whether it affects your job
If one is available, your doctor may use an ultraviolet lamp called a Wood’s lamp to look at your skin in more detail. You will need to be in a dark room and the lamp will be held 10-13cm (4-5in) away from your skin.
Under the ultraviolet light, the patches of vitiligo will be easier to see. This can help your doctor tell the difference between vitiligo and other skin conditions, such as pityriasis versicolor (a yeast infection that causes a loss of pigment in small, round patches).
Other autoimmune conditions
Non-segmental vitiligo, the most common type of vitiligo, is closely associated with other autoimmune conditions. Your doctor may therefore assess you to see if you have any symptoms that could suggest an autoimmune condition, such as:
- being tired and lacking in energy (signs of Addison’s disease)
- being thirsty and needing to urinate often (signs of diabetes)
Your doctor may also take a sample of blood to test how well your thyroid gland is functioning. Your thyroid gland is found in your neck, and produces hormones that control the body's growth and metabolism.
You may need your thyroid tested once a year in case you develop an autoimmune condition that affects your thyroid, such as an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
There is no known cure for vitiligo, but treatment may improve your skin’s appearance by restoring its colour.
However, the effects of treatment are not usually permanent, and it cannot always control the spread of the condition.
Your doctor may begin treating your condition with:
- sun safety advice
- a referral for camouflage creams
- topical corticosteroids
Your doctor may suggest no further treatment is necessary if, for example, you only have a small patch of vitiligo or have very fair skin anyway. If you need further treatment, you may be referred to a dermatologist (specialist in treating skin conditions).
Protection from the sun
If you have vitiligo, you must protect your skin from the sun and avoid sunbeds.
When skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect it from ultraviolet light. If you have vitiligo, there is not enough melanin in your skin, so it is not protected. Sunburn is a real risk.
Always apply a high-factor sun cream, ideally with sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or above, to protect your skin from sunburn and long-term damage. This is particularly important if you have fair skin.
Read more about sunburn.
Protecting your skin from the sun will also minimise tanning, which will make your vitiligo less noticeable.
If your skin is not exposed to the sun, there is an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is essential for keeping bones and teeth healthy.
Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, although it is also found in some foods, such as oily fish.
To avoid potential problems like rickets (known as osteomalacia in adults), you may need to take vitamin D supplements.
Skin camouflage involves applying coloured creams to the white patches on your skin. These creams are specially made to match your natural skin colour. The cream blends in the white patches with the rest of your skin, making them less noticeable.
Camouflage creams are waterproof and can be applied anywhere on the body. They last up to four days on the body and 12-18 hours on the face.
You can also get skin camouflage cream that contains sun block or has an SPF rating.
Self-tanning lotion (fake tan) may also help cover vitiligo. Some types can last several days before you need to reapply them. Self-tanning lotion is available from most pharmacies.
Corticosteroids are any type of medicine that contains a type of hormone called steroids. Hormones are chemicals produced by the body that have a wide range of effects. Topical means the medicine is applied to the skin, such as a cream or ointment.
Topical corticosteroids are unlicensed for the treatment of vitiligo, but they can sometimes stop the spread of the patches, and may restore some of your original skin colour. Your doctor may prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream to adults if:
- you have non-segmental vitiligo on less than 10% of your body
- you want further treatment (sun protection advice and camouflage creams are enough for some people)
- the treatment is not for your face
- you are not pregnant
- you understand and accept the risk of side effects
Read more about topical corticosteroids.
Using topical corticosteroids
Your doctor may prescribe a cream or an ointment, depending on what you prefer and where it will be used. Ointments tend to be greasier. Creams are better in your joints – for example, inside your elbows. Possible corticosteroids that may be prescribed include:
- fluticasone propionate
- betamethasone valerate
- hydrocortisone butyrate
Your doctor will tell you how to apply the cream or ointment to the patches and how much you should use (see below). You normally need to apply the treatment once a day.
How much topical corticosteroid to use
- Topical corticosteroids are measured in a standard unit called the fingertip unit (FTU).
- One FTU is the amount of topical steroid squeezed along an adult's fingertip.
- One FTU is enough to treat an area of skin twice the size of an adult's hand.
- You can use the Patient UK guide, Fingertip Units for Topical Steroids, to find out how many FTUs to use to treat different areas of the body.
After one month your doctor will ask you to return so they can see how well the treatment is working and check for any side effects. If your vitiligo is not improving or the treatment is causing side effects, you may need to stop using the corticosteroids.
After another month, your doctor will see how much your vitiligo has improved. If there is no improvement, you may be referred to a dermatologist (see below). If your vitiligo has improved slightly, you may continue treatment but have a two-week break from treatment every three weeks. You may also be referred to a dermatologist.
If the vitiligo has improved, treatment will be stopped.
Your doctor may take photos of your vitiligo throughout your treatment to monitor any signs of improvement. If you have a camera, you may also want to take photos to keep an eye on your condition.
Side effects of topical corticosteroids include:
- streaks or lines in your skin (striae)
- thinning of your skin (atrophy)
- visible blood vessels appearing (telangiectasia)
- excess hair growth (hypertrichosis)
- contact dermatitis (inflammation of your skin)
You doctor may refer you to a dermatologist if:
- they are unsure about your diagnosis
- you are pregnant and need treatment
- more than 10% of your body is affected by vitiligo
- you are distressed about your condition
- your face is affected and you want further treatment
- you cannot use topical corticosteroids because of the risk of side effects
- you have segmental vitiligo and want further treatment
- treatment with topical corticosteroids has not worked
Children with vitiligo who need treatment will also be referred to a dermatologist, particularly if their parents are distressed about their condition.
In some cases, you may be prescribed strong topical corticosteroids while you are waiting to be seen by a dermatologist.
Some treatments your dermatologist may recommend are described below.
Topical pimecrolimus or tacrolimus
Pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are a type of medicine called calcineurin inhibitors that are normally used to treat eczema.
Although they are unlicensed for the treatment of vitiligo, pimecrolimus or tacrolimus may be used for children or adults with the condition.
They can cause side effects, such as:
- burning or painful sensations
- making the skin more sensitive to sunlight
- facial flushing (redness) and skin irritation if you drink alcohol
Phototherapy (treatment with light) may be used for children or adults if:
- topical treatments have not worked
- the vitiligo is widespread
- the vitiligo is having a significant impact on their quality of life
Evidence suggests that phototherapy, particularly when combined with other treatments, has a positive effect on vitiligo.
During phototherapy, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet A (UVA) or ultraviolet B (UVB) light from a special lamp. You may first take a medicine called psoralen, which makes your skin more sensitive to the light. You can take psoralen by mouth (orally), or you can add it to your bath water.
This type of treatment is sometimes called PUVA (psoralen and ultraviolet A light).
Phototherapy may increase the risk of skin cancer because of the extra exposure to UVA rays. Your dermatologist should discuss this risk with you before you decide to have phototherapy.
Although you may be able to buy special sunlamps to use at home for light therapy, these are not recommended. They are not as effective as the phototherapy you will receive in hospital. The lamps are also not regulated, so may not be safe.
A skin graft is a surgical procedure that involves removing healthy skin from an unaffected area of the body and using it to cover an area where the skin has been damaged or lost. To treat vitiligo, a skin graft can be used to cover the white patch.
Skin grafts may be considered for adults in areas that are affecting your appearance if:
- no new white patches have appeared in the last 12 months
- the white patches have not gotten worse in the last 12 months
- your vitiligo was not triggered by damage to your skin, such as severe sunburn (known as the Koebner response)
This type of treatment is time-consuming and is not widely available in the UK. It has a risk of scarring and will not be considered for children.
Depigmentation may be recommended for adults who have vitiligo on more than 50% of their bodies, although it may not be widely available.
During depigmentation, a lotion is painted on to the normal skin to bleach away the pigment and make it the same colour as the depigmented (white) skin. A hydroquinone-based medication is used, which has to be applied continuously to prevent the skin from re-pigmenting.
Hydroquinone can cause side effects, such as:
Depigmentation is usually permanent and leaves the skin with no protection from the sun. Re-pigmentation (when the colour returns) can occur, and may differ from your original skin colour.
Your dermatologist may recommend trying more than one treatment, for example, phototherapy combined with a topical treatment. Other possible treatments include:
- excimer lasers – high-energy beams of light that are used in laser eye treatment, but may also be used in phototherapy
- vitamin D analogues – such as calcipotriol, which may also be used with phototherapy
- azathioprine – a medicine that suppresses your immune system (the body’s natural defence system), which may be used with phototherapy
- oral prednisolone – a type of corticosteroid, that has also been used with phototherapy, although it can cause side effects
Some complementary therapies claim to relieve or prevent vitiligo. But there is no evidence to support their effectiveness, therefore more research is needed before they can be recommended.
There is very limited evidence that ginkgo biloba, a herbal remedy, may benefit people with non-segmental vitiligo. However, there is currently not enough evidence to recommend it.
If you decide to use herbal remedies, check with your doctor first, as some remedies can react unpredictably with other medication or make them less effective.
Counselling and support groups
If you have vitiligo, you may find it helpful to join a vitiligo support group. This can help you understand more about your condition and come to terms with your skin’s appearance.
Charities, such as The Vitiligo Society, may be able to put you in touch with local support groups (you may need to become a member first). Your doctor may also be able to suggest a local group.
If you have psychosocial symptoms – for example, your condition is causing you distress – your doctor may refer you to a psychologist or a counsellor for treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
CBT is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think and act.
Read more about CBT.