In the world of skin science, there are countless conditions each with their own causes, cautions, and treatments. Vitiligo is one such condition that continues to puzzle researchers in many ways. Here's some of what we do know about it, along with tips on how to treat sunburn for vitiligo and ways to protect your affected skin.

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks the skin's melanocytes, the cells responsible for giving the skin its color. The underlying causes are unknown.

This condition manifests as very light depigmented areas on the skin or hair. The majority of those with vitiligo are otherwise healthy and have no symptoms besides the changes to their skin.

Who Gets Vitiligo?

As the Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center from the National Institutes of Health notes, many people with vitiligo also have a personal or family history with other seemingly unrelated autoimmune conditions, such as thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, or alopecia areata.

This condition can occur in any skin type. It is often more noticeable on dark skin tones due to the contrast of the depigmented skin against the pigmented. It can occur anywhere on the skin.

The different types of vitiligo are based on the extent of the depigmentation and the location of the affected skin, explains the Mayo Clinic. The majority of individuals affected will have the generalized type, scattered patches of depigmented areas commonly involving the face, hands, legs, feet, and body, and even associated patches of white hair. In rare situations, the depigmented patches can occur on just one side of the body (Segmental Vitiligo) or take up more of the skin's surface area than unaffected skin (Universal Vitiligo).

How Does Sun Affect Individuals with Vitiligo?

Given that those with vitiligo have areas of their skin without any melanin—the substance that gives skin both its color and basic defense against ultraviolet radiation—affected areas will burn much more readily.

Furthermore, vitiligo patients are at a significantly heightened risk of skin cancer on the depigmented patches, even when compared to fair-skinned people.

Some quick research may give you the impression that vitiligo results in low cancer rates, but this isn't necessarily the whole story. Although differing methods of study have led to variable results, vitiligo patients do theoretically have a higher risk. Studies may not account for lifestyle and awareness. For example, once a patient learns of their condition, they may change their behavior and take sun care more seriously, preventing cancer.

Regardless of the cancer diagnosis rate, sun protection measures—including daily sunscreen, protective clothing, and avoidance of direct sun exposure—are key in keeping skin healthy.

How Should Individuals with Vitiligo Care for Their Skin?

Diligent sun protection is essential. A broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher should be applied daily to any exposed skin, especially to areas that are depigmented. You might want to opt for a tinted sunscreen to Additional measures you can take include protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats during prolonged amounts of time spent outdoors. If possible, try to avoid direct sun exposure, especially during peak hours of 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

When skin with vitiligo is burnt, treatment is similar to treating any sunburn. This should include gentle skin care with high-quality emollients (skin softeners) and moisturizers. Cold compresses will often provide comfort and soothe red, painful skin. The application of a topical steroid may help to reduce inflammation. If symptoms are severe, see your Dermatologist, as they are familiar with your medical needs and might be able to prescribe an oral medication or stronger topical treatment if needed.

Seeking Treatment—Or Not

Over the years, increased public awareness of vitiligo has helped to cut down on the stigma surrounding this condition. Although there's no cure for vitiligo, it is treatable. Because most individuals with vitiligo are otherwise healthy, treatment is optional, especially for those fair-skinned individuals in whom the depigmentation is less obvious.

Your Dermatologist can prescribe proper treatment based on the location and severity of the condition. If you have concerns, make an appointment sooner rather than later, as delay in therapy may affect treatment efficacy. If the condition cannot be halted or improved by any of a few possible treatment methods, there are medical-grade cover-up creams that can camouflage cases that are less responsive to treatment.

Researchers continue to look into the causes and effects of this condition and hope to develop more effective treatments in the future. In the meantime, seek the path that makes you feel most comfortable, be it treatment or wearing your natural skin proudly—just don't forget the sunscreen!

Author

  • Dr. Jenny Liu is a board-certified Dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her blog, DermTalkDocs.com, combines her professional and personal passions—dermatology and medicine, medical education, skin care, fashion, and motherhood.