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.
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.
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.
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.
There are three types of 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.
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.
In focal vitiligo, a few patches occur in a single area of the body.