The skin doesn't have its characteristic color because it has lost its melanin. For some reason, the pigment-forming cells known as melanocytes have been destroyed.
We don't know exactly why this happens. It might be an autoimmune condition, where your body's defenses turn on your own cells instead of attacking invading germs.
Although vitiligo affects all races equally, it's more noticeable in dark-skinned people.
Who Is Likely to Get It?
Up to 2% of the population and an estimated 2 to 5 million Americans have the condition. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman.
In most cases, it develops early in life, between ages 10 and 30. It will almost always show up before age 40.
Vitiligo may run in families. You're more likely to get it when someone else in your family has it, too, or when people in your family get gray hair prematurely.
You'll often lose pigment quickly on several areas of your skin. After the white patches appear, they may stay the same for a while, but later on, they might get bigger. You may have cycles of pigment loss and stability.
Vitiligo commonly affects body folds (such as armpits), places that have been injured in the past, and areas exposed to sun, around moles, or around body openings. It can also affect eyelids and hair.
It's rare for pigment to return once the white patches have developed.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your doctor can usually make a diagnosis of vitiligo by looking at your skin during a physical exam.
There's no known way to prevent or cure the condition. But you can improve the appearance of affected skin with cosmetics and corticosteroid creams. Your doctor can also try re-pigmenting the white skin using UV light therapy or lightening the skin in unaffected areas, or a skin graft.