While vitiligo, an inflammatory disorder that causes skin to lose its pigment (color), isn’t harmful or life-threatening, it can be challenging to live with. Impacting physical appearance, this chronic, incurable skin pigmentation disorder can lower self-esteem, leading to feelings of social stigma and mental health challenges. If you have this condition, you’ll need to take concrete steps to protect your skin.
What does management of vitiligo entail? Along with medical treatment, it may involve cosmetically treating affected areas of your skin, adopting certain skin-care routines, and preventing sun exposure. With a good plan in place, you can ease the severity and burden of vitiligo.
Sun Care Tips
Vitiligo arises when your immune system mistakenly attacks and breaks down melanocytes, the skin cells that add pigment to your skin. This causes patches of smooth, white skin (macules) to form. The patches may remain unchanged, grow and spread, or even migrate.
Among the biggest concerns with vitiligo is that the depigmented patches of skin are more susceptible to damage from the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. This makes them prone to sunburn, and, especially if you have fairer skin, tanning makes discolored areas more prominent. Further, sun exposure can promote the spread of depigmented areas.
Sun Exposure as a Form of Treatment
One way to medically manage vitiligo is through targeted and directed sun exposure or exposure to UV rays, often referred to as light therapy or phototherapy. This is specialized narrow-band ultraviolet-B (NB-UVB) therapy completed under careful supervision in your doctor’s office over the course of multiple sessions. It’s unsafe to try to approximate its effect on your own.
Protecting affected areas from direct sun exposure is a cornerstone of management. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), consistent, daily use of sunscreen is especially important. This involves:
- Appropriate strength: Use waterproof, broad-spectrum (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays) products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
- Proper application: Apply sunscreen fully to any exposed areas at least 15 minutes before any exposure to sunlight (even on overcast days).
- Reapply as necessary: If you’re spending a significant amount of time outside, make sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours. You should also add a layer after getting wet or sweating.
In addition, there are several other steps to take when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun, including:
- Covering up: Long-sleeved shirts, pants, dresses, or skirts are best. Choose fabrics that are heavier and darker, like denim, as light-colored clothing offers much less protection from UV rays. Hats and scarves can help protect your head and neck.
- Timing: Staying out of direct sunlight in the middle of the day—especially from the late morning to the early afternoon—is another means of preventing sunburn and overall sun exposure.
- Seeking shade: Along with taking other measures, seek out areas of shade when spending time outdoors. Parasols and umbrellas can also be helpful if you’re in an open area.
Other Tips for Skin Care
Protecting your skin from sunlight is a big part of caring for vitiligo, but there are also other actions you can take to ensure you’re getting the treatment you need to prevent the condition from getting worse.
If you have vitiligo, the AAD recommends the following steps to care for your skin and improve your appearance:
- Seeing a dermatologist: While medical treatments may not reverse vitiligo, they can help reverse its progress. Regular visits—at lease annually—can help improve outcomes for this condition. Your dermatologist (a medical doctor specializing in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails) may also recommend treatment approaches, like light therapy, and help educate you about the management of vitiligo.
- Makeup and coloring: Short of medical treatments to attempt to reverse affected areas, cosmetic products (camouflage therapy) can be used to reduce the appearance of skin patches. Makeup, like concealer, should be hypoallergenic and waterproof (such as those by Dermablend and Covermark), and self-tanners should contain dihydroxyacetone. Skin dyes are also available and may offer longer-lasting results.
- Avoiding tanning beds: Patches of depigmented skin are particularly susceptible to sunburn, so tanning beds or sunlamps should be avoided. Tanning will not work the same way as light therapy, the targeted use of UV rays on affected areas (performed under a dermatologist’s supervision).
- Avoiding tattoos: Koebner’s phenomenon is when vitiligo patches appear on skin 10–14 days after injury. Since tattoos are essentially wounds, they can cause discoloration to spread.
- Gentle care: The white patches caused by this condition may also be sensitive and inflamed. Treat these areas gently; do not scrub or scratch them. If you experience itching or discomfort, over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can help.
Herbs, Supplements, and Vitiligo
While more research is needed to confirm efficacy, there’s some evidence that herbs and vitamins can help. These supplements are thought to supplement light therapy, one of the primary treatment options for the condition. Currently, researchers are looking at how well several work:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Folic acid
- Vitamins C, B12, and E
- Folic acid
- Polypodium leucotomos
Take Care With Supplements
The exact effectiveness of using herbal or vitamin supplements for vitiligo is unknown. Also, it’s important to note that what you take can interact with the medications you’re taking. Make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new regimen.
A Word From Get Meds Info
Though it’s rarely cured or reversed, vitiligo can certainly be managed, and its effects on your appearance minimized. Ultimately, living with this condition means making a dedicated effort to protect your skin from sun damage, keeping up with your health, and figuring out ways to help you feel comfortable and confident.
Managing vitiligo is an ongoing process. You may go through multiple therapies and require counseling and mental health support to cope with its long-term impact. At the core of this process is learning to live well with the condition and working on ways to accept or even embrace vitiligo as part of who you are.