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Ella who was born with a facial visible difference, looking off camera and smiling

Types of facial disfigurement or visual difference

Find out about the main types of facial disfigurements that can affect a person's appearance.

This page broadly categorises the main types of facial disfigurements or differences that many people live with. The list is not exhaustive, and you may identify with more than one.

A facial disfigurement may also be referred to as a facial deformity or facial disorder. On other pages of this website, we collectively refer to scars, marks or conditions that affect your appearance as visible differences or disfigurements. This is based on feedback from our community.

Our facial disfigurement categories

Use the links below or scroll down to read more about each category.

Birthmarks

Phil who has a birthmark on his face, smiles at the camera. He wears glasses and a black t-shirt.

Phil is a Changing Faces ambassador and has a birthmark on his face.

A birthmark is a mark or unusual colouration of your skin and is a common form of visible difference. There are different types of birthmarks and many fade within the first few years of life, but others do not.

While birthmarks can be found anywhere on the body, certain types commonly occur on the head or neck, such as port-wine stains. A facial birthmark may concern you because it is highly visible and can lead to stares and unwelcome comments.

Many birthmarks fade within the first few years of life, while some can be treated to reduce their appearance, for example with laser therapy. Most birthmarks are not linked to a medical condition.

For more information see our:

Burns

Michael looking off camera, smiling

Michael is a Changing Faces media spokesperson. He has burn scars on his face.

Burns are when layers of the skin are damaged from a heat source. They can happen for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • Contact with a very hot object like an iron.
  • Touching exposed wiring on an electrical appliance.
  • Being in a fire.
  • Contact with very hot liquids or strong chemicals.

If only the top layer of your skin is burned, often it will heal without any long-lasting damage. But if your burn goes deeper, a scar is more likely to form as the skin heals.

It is usually burn scars that cause a person’s facial deformity or visible difference. Typically, the larger or deeper the burn, the more extensive the scarring will be. Scarring can also affect movement in the affected area, be sensitive to sunlight or make you more prone to infection.

For more information see our:

Cancer

Cancer is a condition where abnormal cells divide and multiply in an uncontrolled way. These cancerous cells can then affect surrounding healthy cells and organs.

A facial disfigurement or visible difference can occur from:

  • The cancer, for example, skin cancer lesions or a lump where the cancer is growing.
  • Cancer treatments, such as surgery or radiotherapy, which can leave scars where the cancer has been removed.

Some visible differences caused by cancer are permanent, like scars while others may or may not be temporary, such as hair loss due to chemotherapy.

Not all cancers and treatments affecting the head or neck cause facial disfigurements or deformities.

For more information see our:

Cleft lip and/or palate

Left: a baby with a cleft lip being held in someone's arms. Right: a man with glasses, wearing a black and white shirt smiling towards the camera

Ryan, a Changing Faces campaigner, as a baby on the left and as an adult on the right.

When a child is developing in the womb, sometimes parts of the face do not join up as they typically would. This can lead to a split in the lip and/or palate (the upper part of the mouth) when the baby is born. This is known as a cleft lip and/or palate.

Children can be born with either a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.

All babies born with this condition need surgery. Before surgery, the main facial disfigurement is the split to the lip, which can vary from a small notch to a wide split up to the nose. After surgery, the main difference is a scar on the lip.

Some children have other complications, including:

  • A wide, flattened nose
  • A misaligned jaw
  • Missing or misshapen teeth

For more information see our:

Craniofacial conditions

Mikaela in profile, looking from left to right of the image

Mikaela is a Changing Faces media spokesperson and has Crouzon syndrome.

Craniofacial conditions affect the skull and face and are rare.

Most of these facial disorders are where the bones of the skull either do not grow as they usually would or fuse together before they are meant to.

In these cases, the facial disfigurement or difference is an unusually shaped head. The unusual shape of the skull can affect other features of the face, including the eye sockets, creating wide, prominent eyes.

Cleft lip and palate is the most common type of craniofacial condition, which we have categorised separately above.

For more information see our:

Ear conditions

Many ear conditions are congenital (present from birth), although they can also occur due to an infection or accident.

Congenital ear conditions are not common. They may be a stand-alone visible difference or part of a syndrome.

Examples of ear conditions resulting in facial disfigurement or difference include:

  • One or more underdeveloped or misshapen (outer) ears (microtia).
  • A missing outer ear.
  • Ears that protrude out further from the head than usual.
  • Ears that are flattened against the head or that have developed under the skin on the scalp.

For more information see our:

Eye conditions

Numerous eye conditions can create a facial difference or disfigurement. For example:

  • One eye being smaller or larger than normal.
  • Ptosis, which is a condition where the eyelid droops.
  • Removal of an eye due to cancer, an infection or other condition.

As eye contact is often important when communicating with others, conditions that involve the eye(s) can be very noticeable.

For more information see our:

Facial swelling

Depending on the cause, facial swelling may be localised to a specific part of the face or affect the entire face. It may be a permanent or a more temporary facial disfigurement. Examples include:

  • Conditions like lymphatic malformation, which is a build-up of lymph fluid under the skin because the lymph vessels did not form properly in the womb. This usually affects a certain part of the face (or elsewhere in the body).
  • Syndromes like Cushing’s syndrome or hypothyroidism, which can both cause a puffy, swollen face.

For more information see our:

Hair loss

Brenda, who has alopecia, stands in a busy street wearing a beige coat and a blue scarf

Brenda is a Changing Faces ambassador and has alopecia.

The medical term for hair loss is alopecia.

There are different types of hair loss, from a receding hairline or general thinning to complete loss of hair on the head and/or facial hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes.

Depending on the type of alopecia you have, there may be some treatments to slow down hair loss, but there is no cure. Many people use wigs, hats or headscarves to cover their lack of hair. Some people may continue to have alopecia or reduced hair growth after receiving chemotherapy.

For more information see:

Inherited conditions from birth

A man with a visible difference in a suit with his arms folded

Adam Pearson is a Changing Faces ambassador and was born with neurofibromatosis.

Inherited conditions are passed down from one or both parents. Sometimes parents are not aware they carry the condition until their child is diagnosed.

Many inherited conditions do not cause a facial disfigurement. Examples that do include:

  • Neurofibromatosis, which causes a range of symptoms, including non-cancerous tumours growing along the nerves, which may be visible as lumps under the skin.
  • Achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that is characterised by dwarfism, with a large prominent forehead, short arms and legs, bowed legs and/or a curved spine.

For more information see our:

Paralysis/neurological conditions

A neurological condition is one that affects your brain, spinal cord or nerves. Paralysis is where you are unable to move some or all of your body. As nerves help to control movement, the two are interlinked. For example, a stroke can reduce blood flow to part of the brain, resulting in partial or full paralysis.

Another example is Bell’s palsy, which causes gradual facial paralysis and drooping. Normally this is temporary (around 9 months) but some people only experience a partial recovery or experience permanent paralysis.

Other causes of neurological conditions include:

  • injuries to the head, neck or spine
  • infections
  • diseases
  • genetic disorders

Depending on the cause, some conditions can be short-term, while others are permanent. There can be wide variations in how severe a person’s condition is and what impact this has on their life.

For more information see our:

Scarring

Marcus, who has facial scars on his face stands with his mother and smiles towards the camera.

Marcus, who has facial scarring, with his mother

A scar is a natural part of the healing process when your skin has been injured. It is a mark on the skin where the wound has healed. Scars are acquired conditions and can occur for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Accidents such as a car crash or fire.
  • Surgery to treat an illness, for example, skin cancer.
  • Skin conditions and illnesses like acne and chickenpox.

The impact of scars can depend on where they are on the body and their size, but also the type of scar. Some are flat scars that gradually fade, while keloid scars keep growing beyond the original site of the skin injury and often have a raised appearance.

While time and some treatments can reduce the appearance of scars, nothing can completely remove them.

For more information see our:

Skin conditions

A man with vitiligo on his face stands in the street wearing a black jacket with green jumper

Shankar is a Changing Faces ambassador and has vitiligo on his face and parts of his body.

Many skin conditions can cause a facial visible difference, including:

  • Eczema, which causes itchy, dry and sore skin that can crack and bleed.
  • Acne, which causes spots and oily skin.
  • Psoriasis, which creates red, crusty patches of skin that often appear on elbows, knees and the scalp.
  • Rosacea, which causes redness (blushing) across your nose, cheeks, forehead and chin.
  • Vitiligo. where patches of skin lose pigmentation or colour, so appear lighter than the rest of the body.
  • Melasma, which causes light to dark brown or greyish pigmentation (colouring) on the face or body.

Some skin conditions are permanent. Others, like acne and melasma, may flare up at different times, for example during periods of stress. Conditions like eczema can be managed with creams and medications and sometimes clear up altogether. Some may cause longer term scarring even after the condition itself has cleared up.

Some people experience symptoms over a large proportion of their body, while others may have a small patch. The impact of the visible difference is very individual and not always related to size or location on the body.

For more information see our:

Why categorise facial disfigurements?

Categorising them helps us show the range of facial disfigurements people can have, without attempting to list everything. We have also attempted to describe the range of visible differences for each category.

It is not just large and prominent marks or scars that cause people to look different. Some may not be immediately noticeable – for example, if they are often covered by clothing – but this does not make them any less of a visible difference and you may still find them challenging.

If you need medical advice

Changing Faces does not provide medical advice. If you need medical guidance, please speak to your GP or other health professional caring for you.

What we provide is a range of:

See our support section for who to contact if you need immediate emotional support.

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