White Spots on the Skin

Eileen Bailey Health Guide May 10, 2012
  • We sometimes get questions from our members about white spots on the skin and whether this is an indication of skin cancer, for example:

    • Kayla writes, “I have white spots that are spreading from my neck, back, arms, chest and belly…help me.”
    • Chic writes, “I have a small area of white skin under my lower eyelid…HELP!”
    • Trevor writes, “How do I know the type of skin cancer I have because I have white spots at the corner of my eyes and the beds of my fingers?”

    It is important to notice any changes in your skin, including changes in color, and to bring these changes to the attention of your doctor for a skin cancer screening. However, white spots only rarely indicate skin cancer.

     

    Causes of White Spots

     

    White spots, or patches, on your skin are usually caused by either vitiligo or tinea versicolor. Eczema can also sometimes cause white patches.

     

    Vitiligo

    Vitiligo destroys cells that produce pigment for your skin. Although not fully understood, it is thought to be an autoimmune disease; your body mistakenly sees the pigment cells as harmful and your immune system attacks them. This condition impacts approximately 10 percent of the population in the United States and can occur at any age. The white patches feel and look like your normal skin, just with less color.

     

    Areas of the body most often affected are the face, elbows, knees, hands and feet. It is more noticeable in dark skinned people as there is more of a difference between normal skin tone and the skin without pigment.

     

    Tinea Versicolor

    Tinea versicolor is a chronic fungal infection most common in adolescents and young adult males and is found most often in hot climates. Because areas of the skin affected by tinea versicolor do not darken in the sun, they can appear lighter than your normal skin, although they are often reddish-tan. These patches have sharp borders and find scales.

     

    In African Americans, the patches can either lose skin color or can increase in skin color, making the patches even darker than your normal skin tone.

     

    Your doctor will take a scraping of the skin within the patch and examine it under a microscope to determine if it is caused by this fungal infection. If so, you may be treated with antifungal medications. Some people have also found that applying a dandruff shampoo to the skin for 10 minutes per day will help reduce the patches.

     

    Because this is a chronic condition, it may take several months for the condition to clear up and skin to return to normal color. You may also see patches return during warmer weather.

     

    Eczema

    Eczema is a red, itchy rash that occurs often in children within the first few months of life, however, flare ups of the rash can continue through adulthood. While normally a red rash, white patches may sometimes appear during flare-ups.

     

    If you have white patches on your skin, it is best to contact your dermatologist and have them looked at to determine what the cause and what is the best treatment. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether further testing is necessary.

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    References:

     

    “Tinea Versicolor,” Reviewed 2010, Oct 10, Reviewed by Linda J. Vorvick, M.D. and David Zieve, M.D., A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia

     

    “Vitiligo,” Reviewed 2010, Sept 11, Reviewed by Linda J. Vorvick, M.D. and Roy Colven, M.D., A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia