What is vitiligo? All you need to know about the skin condition

How much do you know about vitiligo, a skin condition that causes pale patches and affects one in every 100 people in the UK?

Just as people can develop darker patches of skin, where there’s an abundance of pigmentation, the opposite can happen too, where a loss of pigmentation results in noticeably pale, white patches.

The medical name for this is vitiligo, and it affects around one in every 100 people in the UK.

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Michael Jackson reportedly had it, model Winnie Harlow has spoken of living with the condition and Most Haunted presenter Yvette Fielding has, in the past, talked about the impact of her vitiligo. 

And in a huge move for the beauty industry, cosmetics brand CoverGirl's new ad stars Amy Deanna, a model with vitiligo.


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Want to know more, or are you concerned you could have it? Read on for some key facts about vitiligo.

Who gets vitiligo?

Anybody can get it, and while it usually begins before the age of 20, vitiligo can develop at any age.

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“Vitiligo is quite common and affects approximately 1% of the world's population. It affects men and women of all races equally,” says Lisa Bickerstaffe, spokesperson for British Skin Foundation.

Dr Noor Almaani, a dermatologist at The Private Clinic of Harley Street, adds: “The risk is increased if a person comes from a family with a history of autoimmune diseases, such as [type 1] diabetes or a thyroid disease.”

What causes vitiligo?

“The true cause of vitiligo is not fully understood,” says Bickerstaffe. However, some believe it’s an autoimmune response – where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells.

“Many think it's a disease where the body destroys its own melanocytes [cells that produce melanin, skin’s colour pigment] with antibodies,” explains Bickerstaffe. “When this happens, the skin can't make melanin properly and it leaves the person with vitiligo.”

Patches tend to appear most in areas that have been exposed to the sun, though this isn’t always the case.

Does vitiligo spread?

“The severity of vitiligo can vary,” says Almaani.

“In some instances, it can be found in localised areas such as around the eyes, nose and mouth, whereas in others it can be very extensive and cover large areas of the body.”

There are different types of vitiligo too. The two most common are non-segmental vitiligo, which usually means symmetrical patches affecting areas like the hands, knees and elbows, and segmental vitiligo which tends to affect one area of the body.

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It’s also thought that things like sun exposure and stress could, in some cases, make vitiligo worse.

Is vitiligo serious?

While not generally classed as serious, there are things to take into consideration with vitiligo. Patches with no pigmentation will be more vulnerable to sun damage, so it’s important to use a high SPF when these areas are exposed.

Also, vitiligo can potentially affect anywhere there’s usually pigmentation, including the hair and eyes, and it can sometimes lead to partial hearing loss (hypoacusis).

Often the biggest challenge with vitiligo, as with many other skin conditions, is psychological.

“Vitiligo can definitely have a psychological impact on a person, leaving them depressed by the look of their skin and also by people asking questions about the condition,” notes Bickerstaffe.

How do I treat vitiligo?

Treatments can help improve the appearance of vitiligo, but there’s no long-term cure, as is the case for the vast majority of conditions.

“Vitiligo can be treated, however it’s important to note that, even after treatment, it is likely to reoccur throughout a person’s life,” says Almaani.

“Treatments include topical creams such as steroid cream, Calcineurin inhibitors [drugs that inhibit the action of calcineurin, an enzyme involved in activating the T-cells of the immune system], and photo therapy treatment which can help to produce pigmentation.”

Camouflage make-up can also be helpful, like Vichy Dermablend.

I might have vitiligo, what should I do?

If you think you could have vitiligo, it’s best to see your GP or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis. If necessary, you could also be referred for tests to check for co-existing auto-immune conditions, and a health professional can advise on treatment options and sun safety, as well as psychological support.

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