Vitiligo

This information is useful for children, adults, and older adults
Winnie Harlow attends the amfAR Gala Cannes 2017 at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on May 25, 2017 in Cap d'Antibes, France. During Cannes film festival 2017.

Winnie Harlow attends the amfAR Gala during the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Why Yale Medicine?
  • Yale Medicine Dermatology is pioneering new treatments for vitiligo and related autoimmune diseases such as alopecia areata and atopic dermatitis (eczema).
  • Leading experts in dermatology, we are conducting research on the most difficult-to-treat skin disorders.
  • We use the latest technology and research to treat patients with skin disorders—from the most common to the most rare.

If you’ve heard of fashion model Winnie Harlow, you may already be familiar with a skin condition that affects about 3 million people in the United States and about 70 million worldwide: vitiligo.

It happens when skin loses its pigment (coloring), causing white patches of skin that can sometimes cover the entire body. While Harlow has found stardom, that is not the reality for the vast majority of people with vitiligo.

“Many, if not most, people with vitiligo feel self-conscious,” says Brett King, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist and an associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “Feelings range from embarrassment to clinical depression.”

“When vitiligo is very noticeable, patients often report that people will avoid touching them, even in day-to-day transactions such as when shaking hands or exchanging money at a restaurant,” says Dr. King.

Although there is no cure for vitiligo, there may be hope. At Yale Medicine Dermatology, Dr. King is performing research on the use of a new class of medicines for the treatment of the disorder.

Vitiligo is a disease that causes patches of skin to lose their color, resulting in white spots. In some instances, most (or all) of the skin becomes white.

Skin, hair and eye coloring comes from a pigment called melanin. It’s related to an amino acid and is produced by melanocytes, the skin’s pigment-making cells, located in the epidermis (outer layer of skin). People with darker skin tones have more melanin in their skin than people who are fair.

Vitiligo occurs when the melanocytes are attacked (and destroyed) by the body’s immune system. “When pigment-making cells in the skin are destroyed, people develop white splotches, leading to psychological and social distress,” says Dr. King.