vitiligo causes and skin condition vitiligo treatment

Vitiligo: What causes vitiligo and can it be treated?

15th January 2021 | Author: Amira Arasteh

We’ve touched on a number of conditions in recent months here at mamabella – from eczema to rosacea – but one which a number of readers have messaged about is the skin condition vitiligo.

Sometimes confused with a form of albinism, vitiligo is a skin condition that causes areas of the skin to lose their natural pigment.

Below we explain a bit more about the vitiligo causes and treatment options.


With vitiligo, affected patches of the skin become very pale, pink or even white and it may also cause hair to lose its colour, or even stop growing, in affected areas.

It’s a common skin condition and affects all skin types equally, although it can be less noticeable across fairer skin, and despite the myths, vitiligo is not contagious and there is no risk of transmission from contact.

Likely the most famous person with vitiligo is model Winnie Harlow who was the first person to appear on America’s Next Top Model with a skin condition, let alone the first with vitiligo.

Winnie was recently the inspiration behind a Barbie doll with vitiligo. Mattel released the doll as part of the brand’s latest range of more inclusive Barbie Dolls. The doll with vitiligo is pictured far right in the image below.

Vitiligo causes

According to Dr. Derrick Phillips, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation, vitiligo is said to be caused by “a disordered immune system leading to either inactivation or loss of pigment-producing cells, known as melanocytes, in the skin.”

We’ve talked a little about melanocytes before in our guides on how to get rid of dark spots, and why SPF is so important and in both instances, melanocytes are impacted by ageing or sun exposure to the point where they cause pigmentation or hyperpigmentation.

Vitiligo is effectively the opposite. This is the reason it’s confused with albinism, which is also a condition caused by a lack of pigment in their skin and hair.

vitiligo causes and vitiligo treatmentGetty Images/iStockphoto

The difference, though, is that albinism is a genetic condition where people aren’t able to make the regular amount of melanin and is a general issue, rather than a localised one, like vitiligo. You can read more about makeup for people with albinism in our Ivoree Beauty article. 

Genetics are also potentially at play when it comes to the vitiligo causes, and around 20% of people with vitiligo have someone in their family who has been affected by the skin condition.

Some people find they notice irritation to their skin prior to a new area of vitiligo developing but other than that, there are not usually any symptoms.

An official vitiligo diagnosis is classified based on the number of skin areas affected, with Dr. Phillips saying that the most common type is “generalised”, whereby there are “symmetrically distributed patches affecting multiple sites.”

Commonly affected areas include hands, face, and armpits and Dr Phillips advises that people with vitiligo will burn easy in the sun so should be wearing SPF daily.

Vitiligo treatment


Some people choose not to have vitiligo treatment, opting for cosmetic camouflage instead.

This is through the use of specially-designed concealers and colour-correcting creams and powders.

First developed by plastic surgeons during World War II for severe burn victims, there is now a wide range of products available for those with vitiligo.

Charities such as Changing Faces offer expert advice on which products to go for, and which to avoid.

According to Dr. Phillips, there are no known triggers for vitiligo and it can occur at any age. He goes on to state that the majority of individuals affected by the condition will notice skin patches losing pigment before the age of 30.

Often, vitiligo starts in one or a few select areas on the body but it can spread. Dr. Phillips added that “in the majority of individuals, there is a slow progression to involve other parts of the body”.

Vitiligo is a long-term skin condition that can’t be cured. However, it can be treated with anti-inflammatory creams.

The first step in any vitiligo treatment involves potent steroids, calcineurin inhibitors such as Tacrolimus, and Vitamin D analogues.

Dr Phillips added that these treatments are mostly initiated by a GP and are administered in short bursts, yet dermatologists can offer specialised treatments that use ultraviolet light or lasers to “stimulate normal pigment production”.

In some cases, people with vitiligo can choose to have skin surgery which entails transplanting small areas of their regular skin onto areas of vitiligo.

According to Dr. Phillips there are “new treatments on the horizon”, with clinical trials having shown promising results, thanks to a new class of drugs called JAK inhibitors.


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