Vitiligo: Proving Beauty Is Not Just Skin Deep

By Lucy Reiger, 2019 Alumni.
Vitiligo is characterised by the loss of pigment in the skin Image Credit: JelenaBekvalac/Shutterstock

When my sister was 9, she noticed a small patch of skin in the middle of her hand that was lighter than the rest of her body. Over time, this patch began to grow, with similar patches also developing on her legs, stomach and even around her mouth. Whilst not causing her any physical pain or discomfort, the change in her appearance was enough to warrant bulling from her friends and classmates. ‘Patchy’ and ‘cow’ are only some of the many nicknames she received.

Doctors diagnosed by sister with vitiligo – a skin condition where the body’s pigment cells (melanocytes) are destroyed by one’s own immune system. Due to the loss of pigment, a person’s skin subsequently appears ‘white’. Scientists are still not exactly sure what causes a person to develop vitiligo – genetic factors, autoimmune factors and skin trauma such as sunburn have all been associated with the condition’s onset.

Facts About Vitiligo:

There are two types of vitiligo: Non-segmental and Segmental. Non-segmental vitiligo sees patches slowly develop overtime across different parts of the body. This is why vitiligo is more noticeable in adults than in children. Segmental vitiligo however only affects one area of the body and does not spread.  This version of vitiligo is far less common, affecting only 10% of those diagnosed.

According to the Vitiligo Association of Victoria, approximately half of people with vitiligo are diagnosed before the age of 20. However people can develop vitiligo well into adulthood. Patches typically develop in 3 main areas; around body folds, such as around your armpits or the back of your knees, body openings such as your mouth, or large expanses of skin such as your thighs or stomach.

Whilst the patches may appear to be random, they are quite often symmetrical. Those diagnosed with vitiligo often develop matching patches on each side of their body, almost like a mirror image. In my sister’s case, she has matching patches on the back of her knees and around her temples. Again, doctors are unsure what causes this symmetry to occur, but the feature is so common that it is one of the main criteria in diagnosing a person with vitiligo.

But pigment loss is not only limited to the skin – people with vitiligo often develop white hairs and eyelashes too. Even more curiously, people with vitiligo may also redevelop pigment in areas that they had previously lost it in. However, natural re-pigmentation does not typically ‘fill’ the hole, rather only a few dots may emerge.

White patches evident on the back of the knees and on the hand. Image Credit: Author’s own image

The Stigma Around Vitiligo

Vitiligo is probably more common than you think – approximately 1% of the global population is affected. Whilst vitiligo is not associated with any physical discomfort, those with the condition may experience emotional or psychological distress due to their ‘different’ appearance. This may be particularly true for people with darker complexions, as the condition is often more noticeable. While there is no cure of vitiligo at present, those with the condition can camouflage their appearance relatively easily through make up. Treatments such as light therapy have been found to return pigment to the skin, however such treatments are highly expensive and not 100% effective.

Learning To Embrace The Skin You Are In

Vitiligo has been receiving growing international attention recently, and for all the right reasons. Celebrities with the condition are choosing to publicly embrace their unique complexion – international model Winnie Harlow for example chooses to keep the patches on her face makeup free. By raising awareness about the condition, celebrities such as Winnie hope to remove the stigma around vitiligo. Afterall skin is just skin – it’s what’s on the inside that counts.


If you are interested in learning more about vitiligo, check out the following links: