Vitiligo (pronounced vit-i-LIE-go) is an autoimmune disorder that manifests in depigmentation of the skin. In honor of June being Vitiligo Awareness Month, we’re here to help you learn about this disorder so that those affected may lead better, healthier lives.
What is Pigmentation?
Skin, hair, and the irises of your eye are colored with a pigment called melanin. Melanin is produced by specialized skin cells. Higher amounts of melanin mean darker skin, while lower amounts dictate lighter skin. Melanin helps the human body regulate exposure to UV radiation: light waves produced by the sun that cause cancer and other diseases. Skin with more melanin offers more protection against UV radiation (even so, individuals with darker skin should still wear sunscreen!)
It is possible for the skin to suffer from depigmentation. One such disorder is vitiligo.
Vitiligo: The Basics
Vitiligo is generally classified as an autoimmune disorder: a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own cells or organs. Researchers suspect that, in cases of vitiligo, the immune system is attacking the melanin-producing cells, resulting in a loss of pigmentation.
The most common symptom of vitiligo is patches of depigmented skin. For some, sections of hair will turn white, or their eyes will lose color. Although some people are born with it, others can develop it; the average onset age is in the mid-twenties.
There is no cure, but there are treatments for vitiligo that can be prescribed by a dermatologist. Cosmetics such as makeup and self-tanner can be used in order to make one’s vitiligo less visible.
Topical medicines can be prescribed for small areas of depigmentation that will add color to the skin. There are also light treatments, in which patients sit in a lightbox (for widespread vitiligo) or receive excimer laser treatments (for small patches) 2-3 times a week for several weeks. PUVA light therapy is a more intensive form of this treatment. Lastly, there are surgical options if conservative methods do not work, in which skin with your natural color is removed and placed where color is needed.
While the exact cause of vitiligo is not yet known, it is confirmed that vitiligo is neither contagious nor life-threatening. There is speculation that because vitiligo patients tend to have autoimmune disorders in their family medical history, it could be tied to genetics, but there is no hard evidence to confirm this hypothesis.
While vitiligo does not cause pain, loss of function, or otherwise damage the body, that does not mean it has no impact on one’s quality of life. Because it can greatly affect one’s appearance, many with vitiligo experience low self-esteem.
What Can We Do?
It is our job as dermatologists to spread information regarding this disorder in order to alter any negative perception of those with vitiligo. As Dr. Hamzavi from the American Academy of Dermatology explains, “when you see someone with Vitiligo, don’t be afraid to touch them; don’t be afraid to engage with them. Those with vitiligo are just as special as others in your life.” We want to make our society a safe and healthy place for everyone, regardless of appearance.
We hope that you take this month to continue to educate yourself and your family on this disorder. Education is one of the best ways to help those with Vitiligo live happy, healthy, and full lives, without fear of stares or scorn. You can visit the American Academy of Dermatology pages on Vitiligo for more information.If you think you may be experiencing depigmentation, please schedule an appointment with one of our dermatologists.