Patient Expert

Recently, I noticed some patches of my skin are fading. I read somewhere that changes in skin color are linked to some types of skin cancer. Is this true?

If the changes in skin color are occurring on a mole, then you definitely need to get it checked out by a dermatologist. In some rare and advanced cases of melanoma, patients may experience patches of fading skin.

However, if your only symptoms are patches of white skin, it's more likely that you may be experiencing symptoms of vitiligo, a non-contagious disorder that affects skin pigment. Normally, people begin to notice that small patches of the skin have faded. The texture of the skin is not affected, however, and the patches may grow or spread over time. Vitiligo affects various areas of the body including the hands, feet, face, armpit, and groin areas.

While doctors don't know exactly why vitiligo occurs, the most common theory is that vitiligo is a type of autoimmune disorder. The body attacks its own melanocytes (pigment cells), leaving white patches. Others contend that while many people may be susceptible to vitiligo, only a few will actually develop the disorder. Vitiligo occurs among people of all ethnicities, but is more apparent in those who have darker skin. In addition, thyroid disorders are often seen in people who experience vitiligo.

The good news about vitiligo is that the symptoms are mostly aesthetic. The loss of melanin does not lead to any other ill effects unless a thyroid disorder is also diagnosed. The bad news: Vitiligo can cause a great deal of psychological and emotional pain since the white patches occur most frequently on highly visible areas of the body.

There is no cure for vitiligo, but there are treatments that can improve its appearance.

One simple way to deal with vitiligo is by applying waterproof cosmetics. This is especially effective if your white patches are limited to the face and neck area. Sacha Cosmetics carries a line of heavy Kamaflage Cover Cream that is water resistant. In addition, Ben Nye (a stage makeup company) makes both tattoo covers and concealers that boast maximum pigment coverage.

Steroid creams are another solution. Patients who start applying a round of steroid creams at the start of the condition tend to benefit the most.   Doctors advise that you apply the cream to white patches for at least three months before expecting results. The downside? Steroid cream can damage the skin if used too strongly or for extended periods of time so doctors must monitor patients for any potentially harmful side effects.

If you want to try the most advanced treatment, Narrow Band UVB is a popular course of phototherapy for many patients. Doctors carefully deliver small amounts of a specific wavelength of UVB radiation to the affected patches in order to encourage repigmentation. Keep in mind that this treatment cannot be replaced by lying in a tanning bed. The dosage in Narrow Band UVB therapy is highly controlled to avoid excess exposure to harmful UV radiation.

Regardless of what therapies you consider, you cannot "tan away" the faded patches caused by vitiligo. Tanning may cause the unaffected areas of skin to become darker, creating more of a contrast between white patches and the rest of your skin. Some doctors do recommend a small (i.e., five minutes) amount of sun exposure a few times a week. Discuss your treatment options with your doctor and continue to protect yourself from the sun.