Vitiligo is a long-term skin condition that causes the loss of skin pigmentation. The result can be blotchy, lighter areas on the skin. With more than 200,000 cases are reported in the United States each year, vitiligo is a fairly common condition, but still misunderstood. So what then exactly is vitiligo and what do you need to know about it?
Understanding Skin and How It’s Colored
Our skin color is determined by the amount of melanin, or pigment, in it. There are three types of melanin, the most common of which is eumelanin (darker black and brown hues). There is also pheomelanin (reddish and yellow shades) and neuromelanin. Based on their genetic makeup, each person has a unique combination of these pigments,. For those with vitiligo, melanocyte cells – the ones responsible for generating melanin – die off or become ineffective. They fade or do not produce color, and the result is a contrasting skin tone to the rest of the body.
An Autoimmune Disorder
Vitiligo is classified as an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue or organs. The lighter patches usually form on the most “photosensitive” areas, that is, those frequently touched by the sun, with the face and hands the most common targets. But there are exceptions to this rule: skin with folds – elbows and knees – as well as eyes, nostrils, belly button, and genitals – are all prone to losing pigment. Hair, which also maintains its hue from melanin, may also lighten or turn gray.
Types of Vitiligo
There are three main types of vitiligo: focal, which occurs with some spotting in a single area; generalized, in which symmetrical patches form on both sides of the body (as in a mirror image), and segmental, where patches live on one part or side of the body. The latter of these is the least common. Pregnant women may also experience a form of vitiligo, often referred to as a “pregnancy mask.” This condition is usually temporary and often indicates a deficiency in Vitamin B12 and/or iron.
Vitiligo is neither dangerous nor contagious. It mostly is considered an aesthetic issue, meaning that it affects the way we look, and how we feel about ourselves. Such conditions may cause anxiety or withdrawal from certain high-stress or social situations. Luckily, dermatologists have many tools to make the condition less conspicuous. One of the at-home tips is using a good sunscreen prescribed or recommended by your physician; this will protect the lighter regions which are more photosensitive. UVB phototherapy, which is completed in a clinic, can be beneficial for those with patches across large portions of the body.
Other treatments range from temporary – such as the use of cosmetic creams and make-up, to permanent methods like depigmentation, which essentially reduces the color of unaltered parts of the skin to “match” the affected area.
Learning to Love Your Skin
For those with vitiligo, there is good news: you’re not alone. From top model Winnie Harlow, to actor Jon Haam and NBA athlete Rasheed Wallace – so many have not only celebrated and owned their condition, but served as role models and spokespeople for others affected.
While vitiligo can affect any race or skin tone, it is more noticeable in those with darker skin. Most cases of vitiligo are diagnosed before age forty, with half of all instances appearing before age twenty.
Seeking the help of a reputable dermatologist can help you better manage your condition to feel even more confident. One of South Florida’s premier pediatric dermatology practices, the Children’s Skin Center offers a host of state-of-the-art treatments for a wide assortment of conditions ranging from rashes to vitiligo. Their board-certified dermatologists and certified physician assistants pride themselves on offering world class service in a comfortable and inviting environment. For more information, call 305-669-6555.