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What causes vitiligo?

We have some idea of what is happening in vitiligo, but are less clear about what the causes are. We know that pigment cells are not functioning properly in the white patches although some of them survive both in the skin and in the hair follicles in the white patches. There are a number of theories to explain the loss of pigment;  the most popular is the autoimmune theory which suggests that the body’s own immune system is attacking the pigment cells.

The causes of vitiligo are not completely understood yet, but they seem to be a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. People with a particular combination of genes are more likely than others to develop vitiligo, but it is not only due to heredity.
The development of vitiligo may be triggered by such factors as:

  • Hormonal changes in the body, for example during adolescence.

  • Damage to the skin, for example from a cut or sunburn.

  • Extreme stress.

  • Contact with certain chemicals.  

These factors could also play an important role in the development and progression of vitiligo.

Chemicals which can trigger vitiligo

Products which contain phenol (also known as carbolic acid or phenic acid) are possible triggers for vitiligo. 
These products include:

  • Adhesives                                       

  • Deodorants

  • Disinfectants

  • Duplicating paper

  • Germicidal detergents

  • Insecticides

  • Latex gloves

  • Paints

  • Photographic chemicals

  • Printing inks

  • Soap antioxidants

  • Synthetic oils

  • Varnish and lacquer resins




Vitiligo is not a physically harmful condition, so you may find that the doctor’s approach is to reassure you that having the condition is not so bad.  You may find this reassurance helpful. However, people have different reactions to hearing that they have vitiligo. You may feel that focusing on the physical aspect of the condition does not take account of the emotional impact vitiligo can have. Having a changed appearance can be very distressing for many people, if this is how you feel, it is an understandable and normal reaction.

What next?

To a large extent, this will depend on how you feel about having vitiligo. Your feelings will probably be affected by where the patches are on your body, how noticeable they are, your age, family situation and so on. It may be that your vitiligo is not very noticeable; as it does not hurt, possibly you will regard the condition as a nuisance rather than anything else. For some people, the diagnosis can come as a shock; often people describe feeling unreal, or a sense of detachment, or time standing still. This is a common response often associated with shock, which offers a protective barrier to otherwise painful emotions. For many people, doing something practical can help with these feelings.

So, what can you do?

  • Inform yourself:  get information about vitiligo from this website and ask your doctor about available treatments and services. Good information will help you to make treatment decisions and may give you a better sense of control over your condition.

  • Share experiences with others:  it can be reassuring to know that you are not alone in dealing with vitiligo.  As well as giving support, other people can also be a significant source of information. The Vitiligo Society offers opportunities for you to meet other people with the condition.

  • Reduce stress: ask yourself if there are immediate changes you can make in your life that would decrease stress (and make them, if at all possible). Ask for support from your family or friends to help you do this.

  • Talk about your feelings:  this may be with your family and friends. If you find this difficult, a neutral person like a counsellor may be able to help.


Going to the doctor.

If you have white patches of skin, it is important to go to your doctor for a diagnosis. The commonest type of vitiligo is symmetrical, with the patches often on the hands, on folds of skin at the armpit and groin, and around the body’s openings: mouth, eyes and genitals. There are other conditions which can be mistaken for vitiligo, so you need a medical diagnosis to be sure.


When you see the doctor, it may be helpful to:

  • Write down questions before you go. This may help you to feel in control of the consultation and to make sure your concerns are dealt with.

  • Have a trusted person with you, who can support you and help you to make sense of the information afterwards.

  • Ask for information to take away with you. You may want to find out more about vitiligo before making any decisions, and

  • Arrange another appointment to discuss treatment options. Do not feel you have to commit yourself to a course of action if you are not ready to do this yet.

Doctor and Patient