Everything to Know About Vitiligo Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

Thanks to considerable and admirable efforts by public figures, the media, and beauty brands alike, general awareness about vitiligo is rising. The model Winnie Harlow, who has the skin condition, continues to make history: Early in 2019 she became the first model with vitiligo to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Cosmetics companies have also increased inclusivity, with CoverGirl and Fenty both featuring models with vitiligo in recent campaigns. As of 2020, there’s even a Barbie with vitiligo

“Vitiligo is becoming more and more common in our offices, given the recent increase in media exposure, [because] many people didn’t know exactly what they had,” New York City-based and board-certified dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali told Allure in 2019. “It’s something we see commonly in the office — every few weeks, if not more.”

Still, as common as it is, much about this condition still remains misunderstood. Here, we enlist the help of dermatologists to break down the basics of vitiligo, including how to identify it, potential causes and complications, and best treatment options.

What is vitiligo?

“Vitiligo is an acquired loss of pigment with full depigmentation of patches,” explains board-certified dermatologist Michele Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. The disorder causes the skin to lose its natural color, which results in patches of lighter skin that can appear anywhere on the head or body (though they are most common on sun-exposed areas such as the face, upper chest, backs of the hands, arms, and feet).

Although vitiligo is typically a lifelong condition, Farber says that those who have it are not born with this depigmentation. Rather, the patches of color loss develop later on and usually set in before age 20. In addition to this change of skin color, other signs of vitiligo include premature graying of the hair (on eyelashes and eyebrows, too), and loss of tissue color inside the mouth, nose, and inner layer of the eyeball (retina). This lightening of the skin and mucous membranes is usually the only symptom, although in very rare cases, vitiligo can also potentially cause hearing loss and changes in vision, Bhanusali explains.

There are also different types of vitiligo, all of which share the same underlying symptom of skin discoloration, which manifests in various ways. “Vitiligo comes in many varieties ranging from localized to universal depigmentation,” Farber explains. The most common form, generalized vitiligo, refers to discolored patches that present themselves symmetrically (matching spots on left and right arms, for example) and occur on many different body parts. Segmental vitiligo occurs on only one side of the body, and the localized variety tends to contain itself in just one or a few small areas.

What causes vitiligo?

The mechanism that causes these light-skinned splotches to form has to do with melanocytes, or pigment cells. “The body attacks melanocytes in the skin, hair, eye, inner ear, and mucous membranes,” explains board-certified dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, who has a practice in Nanuet, New York. “The melanocytes or pigment-producing cells in the top layer of the skin stop working in discrete areas,” Farber adds.

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