It's a skin condition that's more common than you think. According to Durban-based dermatologist Susan Moodley, vitiligo is a disorder in which light patches of skin appear on different parts of the body. This happens because the cells that make pigment (colour) in the skin are destroyed.

Actress Leleti Khumalo found out that she had vitiligo when she was 24 and it has since spread over the years. She recently shared with True Love magazine that, "It has taken over my looks, but I am content. I don't want my life to be about the condition. I have it - so what? I am still an actress, a mother and a wife."

Others with the condition include model Winnie Harlow, TV personality Graham Norton, actor Jon Hamm and ballerina Michaela de Prince. Michael Jackson is probably the most famous celebrity who was affected by this condition.

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Two types

Dr Moodley says there are two types of vitiligo. One is non-segmental vitiligo and the other segmental vitiligo. Non-segmental vitiligo does not have a specific area of occurrence. This means that the white patches of skin can be seen anywhere on the body. It often begins on the finger tips, hands, feet, mouth or around the eyes. It can occur at any age, which means that you can be affected even when you are old.

Segmental vitiligo occurs only on one part of the body such as the arm or face and tends to spread more rapidly than non-segmental vitiligo. It is common in children. People who suffer from segmental vitiligo also experience loss of hair, eyebrows or eyelashes. Segmental vitiligo often progresses for about a year or so and then stops.

What causes it?

Dr Moodley says vitiligo is common in people with dark skin. Some may only get a handful of white dots that develop no further, while others develop larger white patches that join together, affecting larger areas of their skin. She adds, “The cause of vitiligo is not known. It’s a disease that happens when your immune system mistakenly attacks some parts of your body. In vitiligo, the immune system may destroy the melanocytes (a mature melan-informing cell, especially in the skin). It is also possible that one or more genes in the body may make a person more likely to get the disorder. Exposure to some chemicals and stressful events may also cause vitiligo.” Studies also show that sunburn is associated with vitiligo.

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Symptoms to look out for

Dr Moodley advises people to look out for the following:

1. Skin changing colour: Some areas of your skin will turn white or pale yellow in colour. Areas which usually get affected are the feet, hands (fingers and wrists), face (especially on the lips).
2. Premature whitening of eyebrows or eyelashes: Generally, eyebrows and eyelashes do not turn grey at a young age. Therefore, this symptom is easier to spot.
3. Loss of colour on the eye retina: This symptom is too difficult to identify because the retina forms the inner layer of your eye and is not very noticeable.

Who gets it?

Studies show that vitiligo is worldwide and affects all races equally; it is particularly troubling for people whose normal skin colour is brown. The same kind of blemish can become a problem for vitiligo sufferers with normally fair skin who tan deeply during the summer months or, among those who live in sunny climates throughout the year.


Treatment

There are ways that a person living with vitiligo can manage the skin condition. These include: Applying sunscreen The two goals of using sunscreen are to protect the skin from sunburn and to limit tanning. The sun protection factor (SPF) of sunscreens that people should use should be no less than SPF 30. Topical Corticosteroid Creams Topical corticosteroid creams are practical, simple and safe to use. They are not recommended for patients with sensitive skin, and monitoring by a doctor is very important.

Laser therapy Excimer laser treatment can be used to bring back colour to the white or light patches of the skin. However, this procedure can be used only on small areas, and it’s often used together with a drug applied to the skin. Redness and blistering are the common side effects of the laser treatment, but they can be managed.