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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 4, 2024.

What is Vitiligo?

Harvard Health Publishing

Vitiligo consists of white patches of skin that are caused by the loss of melanin, the pigment that is a major contributor to skin. Melanin is produced by special cells called melanocytes, which are destroyed in people who have vitiligo. The cause of vitiligo is not known but evidence strongly suggests that vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder, in which the body's immune system mistakenly targets and injures these specific cells.


Vitiligo can cause minor changes or extensive changes in the skin. In some people, it may be hardly noticeable, while in others it is obvious. In dark-skinned people the vitiligo patches are obvious since they contrast with normal skin. Light-skinned people may have fewer cosmetic concerns, but patches without pigment can become obvious in the summer because unaffected skin tans while vitiligo skin does not tan.

Vitiligo occurs in about 1 percent to 2 percent of the population. Approximately 30 percent of people with vitiligo have a family history of the condition. About half of people with vitiligo start showing symptoms before age 20.

People with vitiligo have an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases, such as autoimmune thyroid disease and type 1 diabetes.  Also, people with these conditions have an increased risk of developing vitiligo.


Vitiligo causes patches of white skin that are often symmetrical (even), with dark or red borders. The patches can occur anywhere, but the areas most commonly affected are the backs of the hands, the face, and areas that have skin folds, such as the armpits and genitals. Body openings, such as the lips, eyes, nipples and anus are also common areas for vitiligo, as are areas that have been sunburned.

Vitiligo can occur in bursts, so that sizeable areas of skin may rapidly lose their pigment during the beginning stages of the condition, yet then these whitened skin patches may abruptly stop expanding for months or years.


Vitiligo causes a pattern of skin changes that usually can be recognized easily by a doctor. If the skin changes are in a pattern that suggests other conditions, your doctor might recommend a biopsy of the skin to be certain about your diagnosis. In a biopsy, a small piece of skin is removed and examined in a laboratory. A biopsy usually is not needed to diagnose vitiligo.

Expected Duration

In 1 out of every 5 to 10 people, some or all of the pigment eventually returns on its own and the white patches disappear. For most people, however, the whitened skin patches last and grow larger if vitiligo is not treated. Vitiligo is a lifelong condition.


There is no way to prevent vitiligo.


Vitiligo is difficult to treat, and responses vary. The most important treatment is to protect areas of vitiligo from the sun. It is very easy for areas without pigment to become sunburned. This increases the risk of skin cancer. Wear sun-protective clothing and/or apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to areas affected by vitiligo.

Other treatments can be attempted if vitiligo causes emotional or social distress. The goals of treatment are to minimize the contrast in color between your normal skin and skin patches that have lost pigment.

For many, "cosmetic camouflage" may be the best option.  Spray tanning products and foundation-based cosmetics are often recommended when vitiligo affects skin in highly visible areas, such as the hands, face or neck.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

When To Call a Professional

If you notice that patches of skin appear white, contact your doctor for an examination. Treatment may be most helpful if it can be started when only a small area of skin is affected. It is very important to wear sunscreen to protect the areas affected by vitiligo, since these areas are especially at risk for sunburn and for skin cancers.


For most people with vitiligo, this condition slowly worsens without treatment or needs continued treatment.

Additional Info

American Academy of Dermatology


Learn more about Vitiligo

Treatment options

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.