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Vitiligo

Information about the skin condition vitiligo, as well as guidance about what support is available from Changing Faces and other organisations.

What is vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a long-term skin condition which leads to white patches appearing on the skin. It is also known as leucoderma. The condition causes the skin to lose its pigmentation (colour) and appear white or sometimes pink.

Vitiligo can affect anyone at an age, although 95% of people with vitiligo develop the condition before they reach the age of 40. It may be more noticeable in people with darker skin. It is not contagious or physically harmful and it is not linked to cancer.

Some people find that having vitiligo can impact their self-confidence and mental health. On this page, we look at what vitiligo is and provide support and guidance to help you manage the impact of living with a visible difference.

Signs and symptoms

Vitiligo tends to affect the following parts of the body, although other areas may be affected:

  • Eyes, nostrils, navel (tummy button), elbows, genital areas
  • Areas with folds, such as knees and elbows
  • Inside the mouth (occasionally)

The condition often begins as a pale patch of skin which gradually turns white. Patches can be smooth or irregular and may vary in size. Vitiligo is unlikely to cause discomfort, although patches may sometimes be itchy.

Causes of the condition

Vitiligo is caused by a lack of a pigment called melanin, which gives the skin its colour. Melanin is produced by melanocytes. People with vitiligo do not have enough working melanocytes to produce enough melanin.

Is vitiligo genetic?

Vitiligo is not strictly genetic, but it can run in families. Overall, roughly one in 100 people have vitiligo. About three in 10 people with vitiligo have a family history of the skin condition. This means that if your parents had vitiligo, you are more likely to develop it. The majority of people with vitiligo have no family history. Not everyone whose parents had vitiligo will develop it.

Types of vitiligo

There are three types of vitiligo:

Non-segmental vitiligo

This is the most common type of vitiligo, affecting nine in 10 people with the condition. It is also known as “bilateral” or “generalised” vitiligo. Non-segmental vitiligo is characterised by symmetrical patches which may occur on the backs of the hands, arms, skin around body openings, knees, elbows and/or feet.

Segmental vitiligo

In segmental vitiligo, white patches affect only one side of the body. It is the least common type of vitiligo but is more common in children than in adults.

Focal vitiligo

In focal vitiligo, a few patches occur in a single area of the body.

How is vitiligo diagnosed?

If you think you have vitiligo, see your GP. They will ask you about things like your family history of the condition or whether you have had any injuries recently. They may also examine you with an ultraviolet torch called a “Wood’s lamp” which is used to rule out other skin conditions.

Treatments for vitiligo

There is currently no cure for vitiligo, although research is being carried out to find one. There are several treatments available to help people manage their symptoms. However, vitiligo is not harmful and rarely causes discomfort, so there is no need to seek treatment unless you decide this is right for you. Further down, we have some guidance on overcoming appearance-related distress.

Sun safety is recommended for people with vitiligo as the parts of the body affected are susceptible to sunburn.

Topical steroids

Topical steroids are sometimes prescribed to people with non-segmental vitiligo occurring on less than 10% of the body. They are called “topical” because they are applied to a specific area. Vitiligo is considered to be an autoimmune disease (where the immune system attacks the body), and steroids can help by suppressing the activity of the immune system in the areas they are applied to.

Topical steroids are usually prescribed to patients seeking further treatment, instead of being offered as a matter of course. They come in the form of creams, ointments and gels.

Other treatments

There are a range of other treatments which may be prescribed or recommended. These include:

  • Topical creams (usually used to treat eczema)
  • Phototherapy (treatment which uses light)
  • Skin grafts (where unaffected skin is grafted onto vitiligo patches)
  • Depigmentation (to make unaffected areas look more like the affected area)

Vitamin D supplements

Vitamin D supplements are not used to treat vitiligo. However, because vitiligo patches are more susceptible to sunburn, people with the condition may spend less time in the sun than others. This can lead to a deficiency of vitamin D. GPs often prescribe vitamin D supplements to prevent or treat this deficiency.

Vitiligo and my appearance

Vitiligo can cause very noticeable changes to your appearance. Some people find that living with the condition can have significant impacts on their self-confidence and mental health. Some find that their sense of body image (the way you view your own body) changes after they develop vitiligo.

If you have vitiligo, you may become more self-conscious about your appearance, and more aware of others looking at you. It can be particularly hard when other people ask questions or comment on your experience.

What vitiligo support can we offer?

There are a number of services available to you if you are struggling.

At Changing Faces, we offer counselling and wellbeing support sessions to help you cope with the social, emotional and psychological impacts of living with vitiligo. Our trained wellbeing practitioners will listen as you share your experience and concerns, and provide support and guidance to help you manage the day-to-day challenges of life with a visible difference. Have a look at our dedicated page.

You may also find our series of self-help guides helpful. They provide practical guidance on how to manage many of the challenges you may face as someone living with a visible difference. Topics include self-esteem, mental health, other people’s reactions, working life, and dating and relationships. Browse all our resources here.

You do not need to hide your vitiligo to fit in with society’s expectations. However, if you decide that reducing the appearance of your vitiligo is the right option for you, we offer a Skin Camouflage Service. Skin camouflage is the use of specialist, highly pigmented creams and powders to reduce the appearance of a mark, scar or skin condition. In vitiligo, creams and powders which match the natural skin tone are applied to the patches so that the skin condition is less visible. You can read more about our Skin Camouflage Service in this dedicated section of our website.

There are a number of other ways we support people with vitiligo here at Changing Faces:

  • Online Community: A moderated online forum administered by Changing Faces staff, where you can talk to others with vitiligo and other visible differences.
  • Peer Group Chat Service: An online support group of up to eight participants, taking place on Zoom or via a chatroom and facilitated by Changing Faces staff.
  • Workshops for children and young people and their parents: An opportunity to meet others and learn tools, tips and techniques for managing challenges with your visible difference.
  • Real stories: Read stories by other people living with skin conditions such as vitiligo.

Please contact our Support and Information Line if you are interested in using our services. As well as connecting you to our services and providing information, our friendly team offer support calls for you to talk about the impact of vitiligo on your life.

Other organisations

Guidance, support and advice is also available from other organisations. Please follow the links to their websites to learn more.

Vitiligo Society logo

The Vitiligo Society

The Vitiligo Society provides specialist self-help resources and information about living life with vitiligo, information about research into new treatments as well as opportunities to get involved in research projects, and a Peer Support Group for people with vitiligo.

Outlook logo

Outlook

A national, highly specialist psychological service based at North Bristol NHS Trust, supporting adults (16+) with appearance-related distress. They can provide face-to-face and remote support via NHS Attend AnyWhere. Please speak to your GP or healthcare professional to discuss a referral.

NHS

Please have a look at the NHS conditions page for official guidance on the main types of vitiligo, information on when to see a GP, and advice about treatments available on the NHS. You will also find information about the current impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on NHS services.