Tinea Versicolor

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 02, 2023
7 min read

Tinea versicolor is a fungal infection that causes small patches of discolored spots on your skin. It's also called pityriasis versicolor. It results from a type of yeast that naturally lives on your skin. When the yeast grows out of control, it causes this skin disease, which appears as a rash.

Acidic bleach from the growing yeast causes areas of skin to be a different color than the skin around them. These can be individual spots or patches. Specific signs and symptoms of the infection include:

  • Patches that are white, pink, red, or brown and may be lighter or darker than the skin around them.
  • Spots that don’t tan the way the rest of your skin does.
  • Spots that show up more boldly when you do tan.
  • Spots that may occur anywhere on your body but are most commonly seen on your neck, chest, back, and arms.
  • Spots that are dry and scaly and may itch or hurt, although this is rare.

The spots may disappear during cool weather and worsen during warm and humid weather.

Tinea versicolor on face

Tinea versicolor can occasionally appear on your face. But if you have a rash on your face, it’s more likely to be a separate condition. For example, seborrheic dermatitis, commonly called dandruff, is a skin condition that causes scaly, itchy skin patches. It’s most often seen on the scalp, but it can also appear on other oily areas of the body, including the face, sides of the nose, eyelids, eyebrows, and skin under the beard or mustache.

Unlike tinea versicolor, scaly dandruff patches are red and can flake off onto your hair or clothing. If you have brown or black skin, the rash may appear darker or lighter than your natural color. If your skin is lighter, the rash may be redder in color. Seborrheic dermatitis is sometimes called seborrheic eczema or seborrheic psoriasis. When it appears in infants, it’s usually called cradle cap.

Some studies suggest that the skin changes caused by seborrheic dermatitis may be an inflammatory response to the same fungus that causes tinea versicolor.

Some other skin problems have symptoms that look like tinea versicolor, including:

Tinea versicolor vs vitiligo

Vitiligo is a skin condition that affects the pigmentation of the skin. It differs from tinea versicolor in its cause, symptom, and treatment. 

Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks and destroys the cells responsible for producing the pigment melanin in the skin. It results in the loss of pigment, causing white, colorless patches on otherwise normally pigmented skin. The darker your skin, the more noticeable the white patches. Unlike tinea versicolor, vitiligo itself doesn't cause itching or discomfort.

Vitiligo affects different areas of the body than tinea versicolor. The spots caused by vitiligo are smooth, while tinea versicolor may make your skin rough or scaly in some patches.

Tinea versicolor vs pityriasis rosea

Pityriasis rosea is a skin condition that can cause rashes, but it has different causes and characteristics than tinea versicolor.

Pityriasis rosea typically starts with a single, larger round or oval patch of scaly skin on the face, back, chest, or abdomen surrounded by a raised border. If you have darker skin, the rash is purple or red-brown. On lighter skin, it’s pinker or salmon-colored. This rash is known as the “herald patch” or “mother patch.”

The herald patch is sometimes followed by the development of smaller “daughter patches.” These appear as bumps or scaly patches on the same area of the body. They look like a Christmas tree. Like tinea versicolor, pityriasis rosea can be mildly itchy for some people, but it's not always associated with itching.

The exact cause of pityriasis rosea is not well understood, but it's believed to be associated with viral infections, particularly some forms of herpes.

Tinea versicolor usually doesn’t clear up on its own. Antifungal medications are most effective at healing your rashes and discolored areas of skin.

Once you begin treatment, scaly patches should start to smooth over. It’ll take about 2-4 weeks for the scaly patches to fully heal. The discoloration can take 6 months to a year to go away.

If you live in a warm climate, there's a higher chance your tinea versicolor may come back in the summer. You may need to regularly use medication to manage your symptoms or skin discoloration.

The yeast that causes tinea versicolor, Malassezia, grows on normal, healthy skin. But the following things can trigger an overgrowth that causes the infection:

  • Oily skin
  • Living in a hot climate
  • Sweating a lot
  • Hormonal changes
  • A weakened immune system

Because the yeast grows naturally on your skin, tinea versicolor isn’t contagious. The condition can affect people of any skin color. It's more likely to affect teens and young adults. For some people, it can cause emotional distress and feelings of self-consciousness.

Your doctor can diagnose tinea versicolor by what the rash looks like.

If they need more information, these tests can help:

  • Wood lamp (black light) examination. The doctor uses ultraviolet light, which may make the affected areas appear a fluorescent coppery orange color if they're the result of tinea versicolor.
  • Microscopy using potassium hydroxide (KOH). Your doctor removes cells from your skin, soaks them in potassium hydroxide, and then looks at them under a microscope.
  • Skin biopsy. The doctor takes a skin sample by scraping some skin and scales from the affected area to look at under a microscope. In the case of children, the doctor may lift off skin cells by first firmly attaching clear tape to the affected area and then removing it. The sample can then be stuck directly onto a slide to look at with a microscope.

Treatment of tinea versicolor can consist of creams, lotions, or shampoos that you put on your skin. It can also include medication given as pills. The type of treatment will depend on the size, location, and thickness of the infected area.

Treatment options include:

  • Topical antifungals. You put these directly on your skin. They may be in the form of lotion, shampoo, cream, foam, or soap. They keep yeast growth under control. Over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal topical products, which contain ingredients such as clotrimazole, ketoconazole, miconazole, zinc-pyrithione, selenium sulfide, and terbinafine, are available. Prescription products are available too.
  • Antifungal pills. These may be used to treat more serious or recurrent cases of tinea versicolor. Sometimes, doctors use them because they clear up the infection faster. You’ll need a prescription for these medicines. They can have side effects. Your doctor will keep an eye on you while you’re taking antifungal pills.

Treatment usually gets rid of the fungal infection. However, skin discoloration may take several months to resolve.

Tinea versicolor natural treatment

If you want a more natural treatment, you can make your own tinea versicolor cream or solutions with ingredients you may already have in your pantry. Be aware that these home remedies aren’t backed by strong evidence and may not be as effective as OTC or prescription antifungal medications.

  • Aloe vera. Aloe is a cactus-like plant used historically for a variety of skin conditions. One study showed that high concentrations of aloe vera extract may slow or help prevent the growth of the fungus that causes tinea versicolor.

  • Honey. Honey has been shown to clear infections in wounds and improve tissue healing. It may also improve tinea versicolor symptoms and may be more effective when mixed with olive oil and beeswax.

  • Turmeric. A member of the ginger family, turmeric has long been used in Thai traditional medicine to treat rashes and itching and may have antifungal properties. At least one study found turmeric cream to be effective in treating skin diseases, including tinea varieties.

Selsun Blue for tinea versicolor

Selsun Blue is a dandruff shampoo used to relieve itchy, flakey scalp. It's also used to treat and prevent the recurrence of tinea versicolor. Selsun Blue purchased over the counter contains 1% selenium sulfide, an anti-infective medication that works by slowing the growth of the yeast that causes tinea versicolor. A 2.5% version is only available in the U.S. by prescription.

Selsun Blue is sometimes used to treat tinea versicolor rashes. Simply lather the shampoo in your hands with a small amount of water. Rub the lather on your rashes and let it sit for 10 minutes. (Rinse your hands thoroughly after application.) When time is up, rinse your skin thoroughly with water. Apply Selsun Blue once a day for up to 7 days, or as directed by your doctor.

Episodes of tinea versicolor are very common because the yeast that causes the infection is a normal fungus that lives on your skin. You might use medicated cleansers once a week for 10 minutes at a time for a few months to help prevent tinea versicolor from coming back. You may need to use these cleansers if the infection keeps returning, especially if you live in a warm and humid area.

To help you manage tinea versicolor, you can:

  • Avoid using oily skin products.
  • Reduce the time you spend in the sun. It may trigger or worsen an episode, and a tan makes the rash more visible.
  • Use an antifungal shampoo daily for a couple of days prior to sun exposure if you do have to go out.
  • Put on sunscreen every day. Use a broad-spectrum, nongreasy formula with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30.
  • Try a dandruff shampoo with selenium sulfide.
  • Wear loose clothing.
  • Choose breathable fabrics, such as cotton, to decrease sweating.
  • Is tinea versicolor contagious?

    While some fungal infections of the skin, such as ringworm, easily spread from person to person, tinea versicolor is not contagious. 

  • How do you get rid of tinea versicolor fast?

    With treatment, the scaly rashes associated with tinea versicolor usually heal within 2 to 4 weeks after treatment starts. But it can take 6 months to a year for the skin discoloration to go away.