Vitiligo is a long-term autoimmune skin condition caused by a lack of melanin. Melanin is the pigment our bodies need to establish skin, eye, and hair color. Melanin is produced in cells called Melanocytes, and in people with Vitiligo, their body attacks these Melanocyte cells. 

People with vitiligo have white patches on their skin, typically on their hands, face, armpits, fingers and wrists, and neck, but also the groin, legs, and scalp. These pale areas are more susceptible to sunburn, so the use of high factor sunscreen is advised, and if a patient stays out of the sun, taking vitamin D.

Until recently, treatment has centered around the use of UVB light, cover-up, application of corticosteroid creams and, on occasion, skin grafts. However, two new studies indicate there may be fresh hope for patients. But first, let’s look at some background information

Who’s affected and how?

Approximately one to two percent of the population is afflicted, and interestingly, children and adolescents represent half of that one percent. However, vitiligo can affect anyone regardless of their age, sex, or skin color. In half of all patients, Vitiligo first occurs between the ages of 10 and 30, and more than 30 percent of those affected report a proven family history of Vitiligo. 

Typically, vitiligo starts with the appearance of small white patches on the skin. People affected often have other illnesses such as diabetes, alopecia, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s Disease, and thyroid disease. Vitiligo can be emotionally and socially devastating for those affected, particularly if a person has darker skin, and the condition is, therefore, more visible. Patients report being stared at, abused, and socially excluded.

Is there a Vitiligo cure? 

In short, no. However, vitiligo treatment and recognizing vitiligo and its physical and emotional toll, has progressed significantly in the last two decades. Treatment centers around slowing down or stopping the progression of depigmentation, and return some of the color to a person’s skin. 

Vitiligo treatment

Recent studies indicate that the use of two drugs, ruxolitinib, and tofacitinib, which are already used to treat other conditions, in conjunction with ultraviolet B light (UVB), can have some success. Ruxolitinib and tofacitinib were used in conjunction with an old Vitiligo treatment, where the affected skin areas are exposed to a narrow band of UVB rays (which cause the skin tan and sunburn). The drugs block the body’s misdirected immunological attack on melanocytes, and UVB light stimulates remaining pigment cells to restore color to the paler patches of skin. 

This particular treatment is more effective if sufferers are treated before all the melanocytes in the affected area are destroyed. Is this the only Vitiligo treatment option? No. Again, another medication used for glaucoma is the topical application of prostaglandin E2 on the areas affected by Vitiligo. Recent studies show that patients using this treatment had moderate or complete repigmentation after six months of use. A further study, which looked at applying glaucoma treatment, latanoprost, alongside narrow-band UVB treatment, was even more successful. 

But what causes Vitiligo in the first place? 

Causes are both genetic and environmental, says the charity American Vitiligo Research Foundation. Many patients say their Vitiligo began after they experienced a trauma like a severe physical injury, grief, or other emotional trauma or illness. Set up by Vitiligo sufferer Stella Pavlides, the AVRF fundraises and provides information and support for anyone living with Vitiligo, with its mission to promote “public awareness, education, acceptance, and a cure.” 

While a definitive Vitiligo cure remains all elusive, these new advances in Vitiligo treatment can only offer rays of hope for patients. Who knows? As a vitiligo sufferer myself, I hope the cure is just around the corner!