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learn about vitiligo

What is Vitiligo? | The Causes The Symptoms | The Treatment The Vitiligo Clinic Patient Support

What is vitiligo?


Vitiligo, a human skin condition that turns patches of skin and hair white, is not a disease we hear much about, although it affects approximately 1% of the population.


Jon Hamm from TV’s Mad Men has it, as does model Chantelle Brown-Young on America’s Next Top Model.



 Chantelle Brown-Young from America's Next Top Model in 2014.


Vitiligo is not painful and does not have significant health consequences however, it can have emotional and psychological consequences.


Vitiligo has, for too long, been a condition shrouded in mystery. The time has come to reveal the truth, educate the community and raise awareness of this condition.  


Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

What causes vitiligo?


Vitiligo is thought to be an autoimmune condition that affects males and females of all ages and races. Immune system cells usually fight infection but in vitiligo, a person’s own immune system cells start to attack the skin’s pigment cells (melanocytes).


The destruction of the pigment cells result in white spots on the skin and sometimes also the mucosa (lips and genitals) and hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. This is not because the immune system is inactive or underactive but rather a result of it simply “behaving badly". 


It is not an infection, nor is it contagious, cancerous or caused by food. It is generally not passed down to children, and individuals that are affected are usually otherwise fit and healthy. 


Some people may develop vitiligo in areas of skin trauma (such as surgery, cuts or abrasions) and some describe a worsening of the condition at times of stress but neither trauma nor stress cause vitiligo to develop.


People with vitiligo may have many white spots over different parts of the body or just one area of skin. White hairs (poliosis) and white skin around moles (halo neavus) may also be seen.


Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if a person’s vitiligo will be progressive over time. The condition undoubtedly carries a significant psychological burden for many which may impact on work, life and relationships. Education and increasing public awareness of vitiligo is the sure way to remedy this problem.


Vitiligo is best diagnosed by a dermatologist (medical doctor who specialises in conditions affecting the skin, hair and nails). Usually assessing the skin in the consulting rooms is all that is required but occasionally a skin biopsy (piece of skin) may need to be looked at under a microscope to clinch the diagnosis.


While there is no blood test to diagnose vitiligo, blood tests may be ordered to assess for other autoimmune conditions if deemed necessary.


Juan Barredo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

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What are the symptoms of vitiligo?


People with vitiligo notice one or more patches of their skin becoming paler and whiter over a period of weeks to months. These patches commonly appear on the hands, feet, arms, face and lips, although any part of the skin can be affected.


Other common areas of involvement include the armpits, groin, around the mouth, eyes, nostrils, navel, and on the genitals.


In addition to the white patches of skin, people with vitiligo may sometimes notice the following:


=         White hairs

=         White skin around some moles

=         Whitening of the skin after damaged skin has healed



Will my vitiligo keep spreading?


Like many skin conditions, it is not possible to predict in each individual when the vitiligo will eventually stop occurring. Without treatment most people with vitiligo will continue to notice their condition getting worse over several years.


For some people, this is a slow and gradual process affecting only small patches of the skin, but for others it is more rapid and extensive. While new patches of vitiligo are appearing the condition is often said to be ‘active’. Eventually in most cases (often after more than 10 years) new spots stop developing. The condition is then said to be ‘stable’.


A skin biopsy is usually not necessary and there are no blood tests that can diagnose vitiligo.


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Can I treat my vitiligo?


While not all patients with vitiligo will want to or need to treat their spots, others do – and for this group, treatments are available to try to regain pigment in affected areas. It is important to know that treatments often only stop the vitiligo from getting worse, rather than resulting in a full recovery, and, even if treatments do lead to the skin colour returning, they usually need to be used for many months or years and recovery may be partial rather than complete.


There are two types of vitiligo. The treatment of your condition will depend on the type of vitiligo you have.


Common Vitiligo

Most people with vitiligo have this type. It starts as one or two pale or white spots and over time more and more of these ‘patches’ start to appear.


Segmental Vitiligo

This uncommon form of vitiligo usually occurs during childhood. It only occurs in one segment of skin – most often it is no bigger than the size of an adult palm. Once it starts it may quickly enlarge to its full size, but then stops growing. It does not improve on its own but it also does not start appearing elsewhere.


It is not possible to predict which treatments will work best for which patients but, in general, treating vitiligo spots early (within the first three months after they first develop) is better. Patients who develop spots more slowly are also more likely to be successfully treated compared to those with more widespread vitiligo, which is worsening quickly.


The sites of involvement on the skin are important in terms of the likelihood of successful treatment. This depends on the number of hair follicles present in the skin. Parts of the skin with large numbers of hairs have a good chance of recovery (since the pigment cells in the hair root migrate to the surface to re-pigment the skin), whereas parts of the skin with small numbers of hairs often do not recover.


If there are dark hairs within the patch of vitiligo, there is a good chance of recovery, but if the hairs are white, the outlook is poorer.


Better chance of recovery:

  • Face (except eyelids)
  • Chest, back
  • upper arms, legs


Poorer chance of recovery:

  • Hands, wrists, feet, ankles
  • Hips


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What are the treatment options for vitiligo?


1. Non-cultured Epidermal Cellular Grafting


Non-cultured Epidermal Cellular Grafting is a technique that involves taking a thin piece of skin from a hidden area such as the thigh, placing the skin into a test tube or dish and adding a chemical (trypsin) to separate all of the skin cells. A laser is then used to remove the top layer of skin from the white area of vitiligo and the liquid suspension of cells is placed onto this site. The patient’s own skin cells then grow into the area and start to re-pigment the skin. As only the top layer of skin has been removed, it heals without scarring. Since the technique involves the patient’s own cells, the colour matches the patient’s own skin colour and it should tan normally.



Epidermal Cellular Grafting can achieve good to excellent re-pigmentation rates for stable vitiligo. The re-pigmented area will match the patient’s own skin colour.



Unfortunately this technique is not yet widely used in Australia. The Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc is the first clinic in Victoria to offer this technique. The skin grafting technique is suitable only for those with smaller areas of white skin that have not improved with other treatments. 




Learn more about the Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation.


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2. Steroid Creams


Steroids (cortisones) work by dampening down the immune system; i.e. they reduce inflammation. Remember it is an 'over active' part of the immune system which is causing vitiligo. Importantly, steroid creams only have an effect on the skin and not the rest of the body (unlike steroid tablets).



Steroid creams, including strong ones, are very safe, even if used regularly for many months or even years. This is their main benefit. They can be used together with UV therapy. 


Unfortunately, steroid creams are often not successful in returning the skin colour in vitiligo. They are more successful if used early in treatment (i.e. within three months of the new patch arising), and generally, they are more effective in stopping vitiligo getting worse (although this is sometimes hard to assess) than making it better.


Side-effects from steroid creams are uncommon. If they occur, they only affect the skin (not the rest of the body) and are usually of cosmetic nuisance only. They usually only happen after using the creams every day for many months and in most cases they are 'reversible' (i.e. the skin usually returns to normal when the cream is stopped):


Skin thinning 

This is the main reason why the chemist or doctor will advise to use these creams 'sparingly'. Thinning means that the skin appears shiny and transparent. There may be small blood vessels visible under the skin and easy bruising may occur. Stretch marks are also a form of skin thinning, and these may not disappear when the cream is stopped. Note that the thinning does not cause ulcers or infections of the skin. Fortunately thinning is rarely seen in cases of vitiligo, even when steroid creams have been used for many months. It is, however, a reason to try and apply the cream to the white patches only and to stop or reduce the use of the cream when your doctor advises.


Pimples (acne or rosacea)

This problem is sometimes seen on the face when stronger steroid creams are used here over weeks or months. This is a reason why strong steroid creams are sometimes avoided for longer periods on the face. However, if they are applied only to the white patches and not spread all over the face it is unlikely this problem will occur. If pimples do occur, they will disappear when the cream is stopped. Standard acne treatment can also be used.


Eye disease 

In theory, there may be a possibility that the prolonged use of strong steroid creams on the eyelids may increase the risk of eye disease, in particular, cataracts or glaucoma. However, unlike oral (tablet) steroids, this risk is extremely small and research studies show that even using strong steroid creams on the eyelids for 3-4 months does not cause these eye problems.



3. UV therapy

Ultraviolet therapy is currently the best treatment option for people with 'active' vitiligo. Natural sunlight can help improve vitiligo, although in some parts of the country the climate does not allow for all year round 'natural UV' therapy. Most dermatologists provide an artificial form of UV, in 'light boxes' which are specially designed to treat skin conditions, including psoriasis and eczema. These days most medical light boxes use so-called 'narrowband UVB', which is both safer and more effective than older machines (and different from the UVA light emitted from solarium machines). In the past a form of light therapy called PUVA was used, which also involved taking a capsule before standing in the light box.


UV therapy (including natural sunlight) has the effect of dampening down the immune system in the skin. It may also have the effect of 'stimulating' melanocytes to re-pigment the skin.



UVB therapy is very safe and for most people it can stop vitiligo from getting worse and lead to some degree of recovery in the skin colour. Unlike creams, it can prevent new spots of vitiligo from appearing by 'treating' areas of skin which appear normal but probably already have some inflammation.


Most dermatologists in Australia 'bulk bill' this treatment, so it is essentially at no additional cost to the patient.



Even if UVB therapy is effective, it works slowly. It is necessary to have two or three treatments each week and a three month course is needed just to see if there is any benefit. If there is some improvement with this treatment, it may take up to a few years before the maximal benefit is obtained. Understandably, most patients get very tired of coming in for treatment week after week, for what appears to be very gradual improvement.


Furthermore, the UVB treatment causes the normal skin to tan, and therefore worsens the appearance of the vitiligo.


Before starting treatment, patients may be required to sign a form acknowledging that there is a small increased risk of skin cancer with this form of treatment. However, for patients with vitiligo this is usually not of concern. Vitiligo is not so noticeable in people with fair skin (who are at risk of skin cancer), but instead it presents as a problem in darker skin types. People whose normal skin is olive or dark in complexion are not at risk of developing skin cancer from the sun. Importantly, melanoma does not occur in areas of vitiligo, since the melanocytes, which are the skin cells that become more cancerous in melanoma, have actually disappeared from the skin, altogether.

Burning of the skin, especially the white areas, may occur if the dose of the UVB is too strong. While this is a nuisance, and may even make the vitiligo worse in some cases, it is not dangerous in terms of causing skin cancer. 



Other forms of treatment, which are less commonly used, include:


  • Immune-suppressive tablets 

In some cases where the vitiligo is getting worse rapidly, dermatologists with expertise in treating vitiligo may prescribe oral medications with suppress the body’s immune system. They are used for a period of weeks or sometimes several months. These medications are generally stronger than creams or UV therapy, therefore more effective in treating rapidly progressing form of vitiligo. However, it can be difficult for the dermatologist to tell if they are assisting, since they may slow down or stop the vitiligo from progressing rather than causing the skin to re-pigment.


  • Excimer Laser

The Excimer Laser uses the same type of UVB as the light boxes, but creates a stronger ‘pulse’ of UV energy to the skin. This laser provides a more efficient way of delivering UV therapy (treatment may take only 4-6 weeks). However only very small areas of the skin can be treated at a time and only certain areas are able to be treated. The main problem with the Excimer Laser is that this form of treatment is not covered under the Medical Benefits Scheme (Medicare), so it is more expensive.


  • De-pigmentation (skin bleaching)

In people where vitiligo has affected more than 50% of the skin, bleaching the rest of the normal skin may provide a better outcome than trying to bring back the natural skin colour. A prescription cream called monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone is applied as a bleaching agent on a daily basis until sufficient whitening has occurred (this usually takes 3-6 months). Although this form of treatment can produce a natural cosmetic result in a short time frame for many, for patients who have African or Aboriginal features, results are less acceptable.


  • Cosmetic Camouflage

The use of camouflage products can work very well to hide the areas of vitiligo and can therefore be important to lessen the psychological impact of the condition. To obtain the best results a careful colour match needs to be obtained. Cosmetic camouflage is very safe and effective however, upon close inspection, it is usually apparent that a make-up has been applied. It can also be very time consuming and costly to apply the camouflage make-up every day.


  • Micro-tattooing

A form of micro-tattooing exists which can provide a good cosmetic camouflage which is 'semi-permanent'. It must be applied by a professional expert. The pigment, which is carefully matched to the natural skin tone, usually lasts for a few years and can then be re-applied again. This technique is less of a hassle than having to apply camouflage make-up every day however, it is only recommended for stable vitiligo and can also be very expensive.


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How successful are the treatments for vitiligo?


It is important to know that vitiligo can be treated and that safe and medically-proven treatments exist. However, treatment often only stops the vitiligo from getting worse, rather than resulting in a full recovery, and even if treatments do lead to the skin colour returning, they usually need to be used for many months or years and recovery may be 'partial' rather than 'complete'.


Furthermore, after successful treatment there is also a risk that the vitiligo may return again in the future.


It is not possible to predict which treatments will work best for which patients, but in general treating vitiligo spots early (within the first three months after they first develop) is better. Also patients who develop spots slowly are more likely to be successfully treated compared with those with more widespread vitiligo which is worsening quickly.


The sites of involvement on the skin are important in terms of the likelihood of successful treatment. This depends on the number of hair follicles present in the skin. Parts of the skin with large numbers of hairs have a good chance of recovery (since the pigment cells in the hair root migrate to the surface to repigment the skin), whereas parts of the skin with small numbers of hairs often do not recover. 


How long are treatments and how often should I see a dermatologist?


Creams and phototherapy must be used for at least 3-4 months just to see if they are working, and if the vitiligo is improving then treatment must be continued, often for over a year.


Follow-up visits with a dermatologist are usually recommended every 3-6 months. This is to assess whether the condition is improving or worsening (accurate photography is important here) and to monitor for any side-effects of treatment.


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What steps should I follow to cope with vitiligo?


When you have vitiligo, you may feel upset or depressed about the change in your appearance. It is important to know that there are several things you can do to cope with this disorder.


1. Find a dermatologist who knows how to treat vitiligo. The dermatologist should also be able to provide emotional support, as vitiligo can have psychological consequences.


2. Learn as much as you can about your disorder and the treatment options. This can help you make decisions about the treatment that will best work for you.


3. Talk with other people who have vitiligo. A vitiligo group can help you find a support group.


  • Scientists have gained a better understanding of vitiligo in recent years, especially through gene research. Current research includes studies to investigate:


    • How trauma or stress to the skin can trigger vitiligo or the development of new white patches
    • New treatments and better understanding of vitiligo using a mouse model
    • Genes that may cause or contribute to having vitiligo
    • Analysis of genes already known to be linked to vitiligo

    The Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc


    The Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc offers a wide range of treatment techniques and support for its patients. 


    The Clinic's multi-disciplinary approach hopes to offer dermatologists and their patients a comprehensive service encompassing expert opinion, patient support and education, and specialised treatments. 


    As a centre of excellence, the Vitiligo Clinic will be well placed to provide training and research opportunities and to collaborate with similar centres overseas.


    Learn more about the Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation.



    Patient Support


    The Vitiligo Association of Australia (VAA) was founded in September 2010 for patient support, public education and the promotion of research into vitiligo within Australia.  


    Anyone with an interest in this condition, be they a person with vitiligo, a family member, a friend, a clinician, a scientist, an allied medical professional or a philanthropist can join this not-for-profit association and its affiliated Patient Support Groups.  Members have the added advantage of benefiting from international links and information resources through the World Alliance of Vitiligo Support (WAVS).


    See their website for more information. 


    The Vitiligo Clinic at the Skin & Cancer Foundation Inc urges those with this condition to consider seeking attention from a qualified dermatologist.


     June 25 is World Vitiligo Day – visit the Vitiligo Association of Australia website for more information.


    The Conversation

    (This article, by Dr Michelle Rodrigues, was originally published on The Conversation and is reproduced with their permission. See that original article.)


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    Vitiligo: Truth, Hope and Change 



    This video was created by Vitiligo Working Group

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