It can be alarming to notice some discoloration on your skin. After all, skin cancer is quite common, although very difficult to spot with an untrained eye. But if you’ve noticed white spots appearing on your face, arms, or other areas of your skin, it might be another condition.
White spots on skin can be caused by a skin condition called vitiligo—thankfully, it’s likely not a major cause for concern.
What Is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes the appearance of white spots on various areas of the skin. It affects about two percent of Americans—an estimated two to five million are currently diagnosed.
Other than the esthetic drawbacks, vitiligo isn’t necessarily a symptom of poor health. Rather, it is a loss of pigment in the skin caused by the destruction of pigment-forming cells called melanocytes. Why it happens isn’t yet fully understood, but it could be the result of an autoimmune condition. And although it can affect everyone—men, women, and people with all different complexions—it is most commonly noticed in people with dark skin.
At this point in time, the causes of vitiligo aren’t very well understood, but it appears to be a hereditary condition that has little-to-no impact on your general health. So if you’ve noticed white spots on skin—around your eyes, on your face, arms or other areas—it might not be too much to worry about.
Types of Vitiligo
Typically, people with vitiligo start noticing it rather early in life. It tends to start appearing between the ages of 10 and 30, while 95% of those who have it will see patches by the time they are 40. That said, it can appear early in life in one area but then go into a type of “holding phase” where no new spots occur. Then, without warning, more spots can begin to appear.
Depending on whom you ask, there are two or three types of vitiligo. The two main types are segmental and non-segmental. Non-segmental vitiligo is by far the most common, affecting 90% of people with the condition.
- Non-segmental vitiligo (also called bilateral or generalized vitiligo) appears on both sides of your body in a widespread and symmetrical pattern.
- Segmental vitiligo, on the other hand, will occur on only one side of the body or in a concentrated area. It can affect a large or small area, and may just be focused in a particular region. This form is more common in children.
Areas Commonly Affected By Vitiligo
Virtually every area of the body can be affected by vitiligo, but you’re most likely to find white spots (of varying shapes and sizes) on:
- Inside your mouth
- Places where you may have had an injury
- Areas around moles
- Areas that are regularly exposed to sun
Vitiligo can also be found on your scalp and cause your hair to turn white or gray.
Signs and Symptoms of Vitiligo
It’s pretty easy to notice when you’ve got vitiligo, because you’ll see the discoloration on your skin. You won’t experience any other symptoms like irritation, itchiness, heat, or dryness. It can happen very quickly and be noticeable in several areas, which can then be followed by a period where no new spots are noticeable. It’s also possible that after it’s stabilized, more areas can become affected.
There is really no way to tell when it might flare up. The best thing for you to do is monitor your skin on a weekly basis to see if the condition is progressing.
Causes of White Spots on Skin
Your skin gets its color from melanin. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes, and it gives pigment to hair, skin, and eyes. People with dark skin have more melanin than light-skinned people, which is the reason why their skin is darker and white spots are more noticeable.
Vitiligo is caused by a loss of pigment in the skin resulting from destroyed melanocytes. Because they are destroyed, color almost never returns to the affected areas naturally. That said, there are some treatments that can help restore color. (We’ll look at these in a moment).
This condition impacts men and women equally, and there is a good chance it’s hereditary. People whose parents have vitiligo are far more likely to get it than those whose parents don’t. Also, if your hair has begun to gray a little prematurely, it can also be a sign of increased risk.
Existing autoimmune conditions, like autoimmune thyroid disease, can also boost the risk of vitiligo, as can a few other conditions:
- Alopecia areata (baldness)—sometimes you might notice white spots in the balding areas
- Pernicious anemia (inability to absorb vitamin B12)
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Type 1 diabetes
Once again, it’s not clear how these conditions can impact the likelihood of vitiligo or why there is an association; it’s just something researchers have noticed.
Diagnosis and Treatment for White Spots on Skin
If you’ve noticed the appearance of white spots on your face or other areas, book an appointment with your family doctor or dermatologist. They will be able to make an accurate diagnosis. During your appointment, be sure to mention any recent sunburns, premature greying, or any other detail that can help provide a little more information about the appearance of the white spots.
The fact that vitiligo is somewhere noticeable can create a certain degree of self-consciousness. For example, someone with big white spots on their face might be a little more sensitive about their condition than someone who has spots on their knees or ankles.
Unfortunately, there is nothing that you can do to prevent the white spots from appearing—as far as we know. Depending on the severity of your discoloration, and where it’s located, different treatment techniques are available:
1. Sun Protection
Protect yourself from the sun. Sunburn might cause the vitiligo condition to worsen, so make sure to use SPF 30 if you’re out and about and stay clear of tanning beds. Although you need UV to create melanin, the white spots don’t have melanin and are at greater exposure to burns.
2. Topical Treatments
You can use cosmetics to cover smaller, less-noticeable white spots, while more severe or noticeable spots can be treated with UV light therapy. Corticosteroid creams are also used to treat vitiligo.
If you have a very severe case of vitiligo, you may opt for more invasive treatment (e.g. surgery). This can include skin grafting, melanocyte transplants, and micropigmentation.
4. Invasive Procedures
Skin graft surgery involves taking healthy, pigmented skin from part of your body and transferring it to the discolored area. Melanocyte transplants involve taking melanocyte cells, growing them in a lab setting, and then transplanting them back into areas where they have died. Finally, micropigmentation is a treatment for lips, where the artificial pigmentation is added.
Thankfully, the white spots on skin are not usually the result of a major underlying health problem or a sign of skin cancer. They can, however, be unsightly and bothersome to certain individuals. In any case, these spots may not be cause for alarm and can be treated effectively.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Vitiligo – Symptoms,” National Health Services web site; http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Vitiligo/Pages/Symptoms.aspx, last accessed October 5, 2015.
Roth, E., “What Does Vitiligo Look Like?” Healthline web site, September 16, 2013; http://www.healthline.com/health/skin-disorders/vitiligo-pictures?akamai-feo=off#Overview1, last accessed October 5, 2015.
“Vitiligo and Loss of Skin Color,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/vitiligo-common-cause-loss-skin-pigment, last accessed October 5, 2015.