Vitiligo Awareness Month: Causes and Treatment

June 2024

Understanding Vitiligo and How to Reduce Its Appearance

We’re back with another Derm Deep Dive, a series where we provide expert advice from one of our board-certified dermatologists about common skin conditions or treatments. For Vitiligo Awareness Month, we’re speaking with board-certified dermatologist at our Mentor, OH location, Dr. Gregory Delost.

The Purpose of Vitiligo Awareness Month

In 2011, June was designated Vitiligo Awareness Month to help raise awareness and spread education about this skin condition that affects 70 million people worldwide.

Recognizing skin conditions within a designated month helps support individuals with these issues and promotes additional research toward treatment options and management strategies. Suffering from a skin issue can feel isolating and have an impact on our daily lives, but speaking openly, especially about lesser-known conditions like vitiligo, helps create a supportive community and widens access to treatment.

Vitiligo Awareness Month is an important time for Optima Dermatology and our team of skin care experts to remind everyone suffering from this skin condition that you aren’t alone and there is help out there!

While many individuals are happy living with vitiligo and consider it as part of their identity, many others struggle with this condition and need greater support and information about treatment and management.

In this blog, I’ll detail the best treatment options and the most effective approach for treating vitiligo.

What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is an autoimmune pigmentary disorder in which the immune system attacks melanocytes, the skin cells that produce pigment, affecting the coloring of the skin. Individuals with vitiligo will experience patches and spots of lighter skin that can occur in a small area or be more widespread. The level and amount of color loss can vary depending on the type and severity of your vitiligo.

Anyone can develop vitiligo regardless of skin color or tone. It is not contagious, but existing patches of discolored skin can become wider or spread to other areas of the body. The discolored patches are typically lighter than your normal skin tone or a milky white color.

There are different types of vitiligo, which I’ll explain in more detail below, and if you develop one type of vitiligo, it is possible for it to then develop into a different type over time. The best way to intervene with progression is with treatment and management.

Vitiligo can also mimic the symptoms of another skin disorder, tinea versicolor, a fungal infection on the skin that causes discoloration, so it’s important to see a board-certified dermatologist if you’re experiencing skin discoloration to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Different Types of Vitiligo

We classify vitiligo in two ways – its stage of development and its type.

Vitiligo has three stages of development:

Localized: A small patch or patches of lighter or discolored skin on one or a few areas of the body. Vitiligo may remain in the localized stage for months or years.

Generalized: Scattered patches of color loss across different areas of the body.

Universal: A rarer stage of vitiligo in which people lose most of their skin color.

Vitiligo can move into different stages throughout your lifetime, and there is no way to predict how much color loss will ultimately occur, or how large or widespread the patches will be.

When vitiligo appears, regardless of stage, it falls into three types based on its appearance:

Non-segmental vitiligo: With this type of vitiligo, patches of lighter skin will appear on both sides of the body, often on the same appendage or in the same location. This type of vitiligo can continue to grow as time passes.

Segmental vitiligo. This type of vitiligo typically affects one area or side of the body and after a certain amount of time, the color loss stops and the vitiligo stabilizes.

Mixed type vitiligo. This type of vitiligo is rare, but individuals who have mixed type experience both non-segmental and segmental vitiligo.

Depending on your stage and type of vitiligo, your board-certified dermatologist will work with you to develop a treatment plan to manage your vitiligo, which can help minimize the spread and appearance of discoloration.

Vitiligo Treatment and Management

I’ve worked with many patients to treat and manage their vitiligo, and I recently spoke about it on New Day Cleveland and highlighted how far treatments have come in just the last few years.

Vitiligo, like many skin disorders, can affect a person’s confidence and impact daily life, but I’m encouraged by the greater acceptance and awareness around vitiligo that has helped individuals consider vitiligo as part of their identity rather than something they need to cover with makeup and hide away.

That being said, treatment and management help control vitiligo, and there are several options depending on your stage and type.

Topical Medication: There are topical creams specifically targeted to the immune cells that play a role in vitiligo. By scaring the immune cells away, the pigment can return over time. For some patients, I may prescribe a corticosteroid or a combination of a corticosteroid and another topical medication to help restore color. Ruxolitinib Cream (“Rux cream”) is the only the FDA approved RX cream to treat vitiligo, the images shown below show the results Rux cream can provide over time.

Light Therapy: Exposure to UV light for a certain amount of time can help trigger color restoration in the skin, and is most effective at treating vitiligo on the face and neck. Because light therapy works slowly, I may prescribe this treatment with a topical medication.

Oral Medications: If your vitiligo is progressing rapidly, I may prescribe an oral medication like prednisone to help slow down the spread and give us time to use an additional treatment.

Surgery: In serious cases, skin graft or cell transplant surgery are options to move healthy, pigmented skin, or cells from healthy skin, to the affected areas of the body. 

It’s important to understand going into treatment that it does take time. The skin’s pigmentation cells need time to return, so results are not immediate, but we have seen remarkable results with these treatments.

Because the skin’s pigment cells tend to congregate around hair follicles, treatment is especially effective on the face compared to the palms of the hands or soles of the feet.

One easy way to help prevent the spread of vitiligo is to practice good sun protection when outdoors. Skin with vitiligo burns easily as there is no pigment to protect it from the sun’s rays, and sunburn can worsen the condition.

Find Your Treatment Plan

Vitiligo can affect anyone at any age, but there are great treatment and management options for everyone. It’s important to visit with a dermatologist to diagnose your vitiligo and begin a treatment plan that is best for you.

I’d love to meet with you to start a conversation about treating your vitiligo. Schedule an appointment with me at Optima Dermatology’s Mentor, OH practice to establish a treatment plan that will work best for you.