Somewhere between 0.5 percent and 2.0 percent of the global population has vitiligo, a disorder that affects pigmentation of the skin. With this condition, the cells that make the skin’s pigment, called melanocytes, are destroyed. This results in white blotchy patches, and vitiligo treatment can take quite a while to work.
For some, vitiligo may occur on the face, neck or hands, causing a dramatic and traumatizing change in appearance. For others, it may strike mucous membranes like the mouth, nose and genitals, as well as the retinas. If a patch appears on an area with hair growth, the hair will turn white or very light gray. (1)
While researchers have not pinpointed a universal cause, autoimmune disorders seem to be the most prevalent vitiligo cause; however, a deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals, as well as exposure to some industrial chemicals, also can cause this disorder.
Finding the right vitiligo treatment therapy takes time; even the most common conventional treatments can take weeks, months, or even years before appearance improves. Conventional vitiligo treatment such as topical creams, light therapy, photochemotherapy, permanent depigmentation treatments of healthy skin, surgery, and cosmetics are often prescribed. And they all come with some significant adverse side effects.
Research continues. Currently, there are over 75 studies listed on clinicaltrials.gov looking for answers and solutions to this disfiguring condition. As vitiligo often causes severe emotional distress, self-consciousness, anxiety and depression, counseling and support group participation is highly recommended.
What Is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a pigmentation disorder where melanocytes, the cells responsible for providing the color of our skin, hair, and eyes, are destroyed. The result is white patches of skin intermingling with normal skin tones. It may resemble the random pattern and patchiness of a severe sunburn when the skin peels.
Often, if affects more visible areas like the face, neck, hands, elbows, knees and feet. But, it can appear anywhere on the body. Vitiligo is not contagious and it’s non-infectious; however, it may have hereditary or genetic markers. Researchers are still examining causes, risk factors and effective treatments.
There are three recognized types of vitiligo:
Generalized Vitiligo. White patches of skin progress symmetrically on both sides of the body, affecting the same body parts at the same time.
Segmental Vitiligo. Typically appears in younger children where the white patches appear only on one side of the body.
Localized Vitiligo. The white patches appear in one or two areas of the body, progress and spread for a short period of time, and then stop.
Vitiligo Signs & Symptoms
The hallmark of vitiligo is white patchy areas of skin; however, other areas of the body may be affected too: (2)
- Premature whitening or graying on the scalp
- White or gray eyelashes or eyebrows
- Whitening of a beard
- Loss of color in the mucous membranes
- Loss of color in the retinas
Vitiligo Causes & Risk Factors
Autoimmune diseases including Addison’s disease, thyroid disease, pernicious anemia and diabetes are believed to be root vitiligo causes. (3) However, some studies indicate people diagnosed with this condition are often deficient in certain vitamins like B12, folic acid, copper and zinc.
Additionally, heredity and genetics may also play a part in this condition, as do stress, severe sunburns, and exposure to some chemicals. In some cases, immunotherapy for melanoma and other skin cancers may cause vitiligo. However, researchers note that this is a good sign that the cancer treatment is working. (4)
In Ayurveda practice, where vitiligo has been identified for over 2,000 years, it is often referred to as “white leprosy.” Vitiligo causes include consumption of contradictory foods, eating too much grain, curd, fish, or sour substances, and a variety of other physical and emotional traits. (5)
Conventional Vitiligo Treatment
As this condition is not infectious nor is it contagious, conventional vitiligo treatments work to restore the skin color, or even-out the overall tone of the skin. However, results are unpredictable and, according to the Mayo Clinic, have serious side effects. In addition, it may take weeks, months or over a year to see results and judge the effectiveness of the chosen treatment. The most common conventional treatments include: (6)
1. Makeup and Dyes. These compounds conceal the discoloration temporarily. They are temporary and must be reapplied often. There are a few relatively new products that are waterproof and are designed specifically for vitiligo sufferers. One application may last as long as four or five days.
2. Corticosteroid Creams. A dermatologist may prescribe a corticosteroid cream soon after diagnosis, which is when it tends to work best. However, results are often not seen for several months or up to a year. A common side effect is thinning of the skin, and in some individuals corticosteroid creams may cause streaks or lines that may become permanent.
3. Tacrolimus or Pimecrolimus Ointments. These ointments are a conventional vitiligo treatment commonly prescribed for individuals with small areas of depigmentation. While research indicates that they may cause fewer side effects than corticosteroid creams, the FDA warns that these drugs are possibly linked to lymphoma and skin cancer. The long-term safety is just not known, and the FDA recommends the use of this drug only if no other medications are working. (7)
4. Psoralen and Light Therapy. PUVA therapy was initially developed to treat psoriasis and is now often prescribed for treating vitiligo. The combination of oral medication in addition to exposure to UVA may help repigmentation of the white patches caused by vitiligo. Multiple sessions are necessary and in some cases treatments may be required three times a week for up to a year. As there is a relationship between UVA exposure and certain types of skin cancers, making an educated decision about this therapy is vital. (8)
5. Depigmenting Agents. If the white patches are widespread, and other treatments have failed, a dermatologist may recommend depigmenting unaffected areas, lightening them to match or blend with the discolored areas. This vitiligo treatment is often done once or twice a day for nine months or longer, and the end result will be permanent. When considering this traditional treatment, it is important to understand that permanent depigmentation may result in extreme sensitivity to sunlight.
6. Surgery. When other vitiligo treatments have failed, skin grafting, blister grafting, and tattooing may be recommended. These are significant surgeries and side effects for these procedures can be serious including permanent scarring, a cobblestone appearance and infection. The trauma of the surgery may even cause additional patches of vitiligo. (9)
7. JAK Inhibitors. Down the road, JAK Inhibitors, now only approved by the FDA for rheumatoid arthritis and certain bone marrow disorders, may be used to treat vitiligo, alopecia, and atopic dermatitis. Large-scale clinical trials are necessary to determine safety and efficacy for the FDA to approve this treatment. (10)
Vitiligo Treatment: 16 Natural Options
The best types of vitiligo treatment — whether conventional or natural — all take time to work. Some individuals may see results in weeks, while for other treatments it may take nine months, a year or longer.
1. Needling. Skin needling is showing some promise as a leading vitiligo natural treatment. In fact, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is currently recruiting participants for a randomized control trial to assess the efficacy of needling in the repigmentation of vitiligo. Earlier studies show promise in needling, particularly when the condition has stabilized and is unresponsive to other treatment protocols. (11, 12)
Needling is a process in which a trained professional uses a medical-grade roller fitted with 200 or more fine surgical needles on the skin. Currently, needling is most commonly used to stimulate collagen and elastin production, promote scar and stretch mark reduction. As there is a risk for infection, finding a qualified practitioner is vital.
2. Vitamin B12 and Folic Acid. A two-year study conducted at University Hospital in Sweden found that over half of the participants in the trial experienced repigmentation when combining vitamin B12, folic acid, and sun exposure. The spread of vitiligo stopped in 64 percent of patients. Researchers note that the areas that received direct sunlight showed the most improvement. (14)
Adding a variety of vitamin B12 rich foods and folate-rich foods is recommended. Vitamin B12 is essential for those with vitiligo as it may help prevent depression, a common side effect of a vitiligo diagnosis. Folate is essential for overall health and wellness as it lowers the risk of heart disease, may prevent certain types of cancer, and is essential for healthy pregnancies.
3. Zinc. Another common deficiency found in those with this condition is zinc. Zinc supports a healthy immune system, fights cancer, fights diabetes (an autoimmune condition commonly associated with vitiligo), supports proper nutrient absorption, and helps repair and heal muscles, tissues and bones.
4. Copper. While researchers disagree on whether copper deficiency causes vitiligo or is a result of vitiligo, adding copper-rich foods to your diet may be beneficial. (15) In Ayurveda practice, water is often kept in a copper vessel overnight prior to drinking. It is believed that copper stimulates the melanocytes into action, increasing melanin and repigmenting the skin.
5. Beta Carotene. For overall skin health, carotenoids are imperative. Beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthin are found in great tasting foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, kale and tomatoes. Beta-carotene is associated with anticancer properties, lutein and zeaxanthin with eye health and lycopene with lower risk for prostate cancer. In addition, these powerful carotenoids may help lower inflammation, promote eye health, and protect the skin from damage, including melanoma. (16)
6. Aloe Vera. Long used for skin health, aloe vera also supports healthy immune system response. This powerful plant contains essential antioxidant vitamins needed when fighting vitiligo, including vitamins A, C, B12, and folic acid. It also contains essential minerals, including copper, calcium, chromium, zinc and others that may support repigmentation of the skin, making it a vital treatment for vitiligo.
7. Vitamin C. Like folic acid and vitamin B12, many vitiligo patients are also deficient in vitamin C. Vitamin C deficiency is more common than many believe and for vitiligo patients, it is essential to help slow cell damage, fight free radicals, and to build the collagen necessary for healthy bones, joints, ligaments and skin. The best way to get the vitamin C you need is to eat fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. But, citrus fruits may not be the best choice for those with vitiligo as they may reduce pigmentation in some people.
8. Vitamin D. Many people with vitiligo are sensitive to the sun and some of the conventional treatments can cause a severe sensitivity to the sun. Because of this, incorporating plenty of vitamin D-rich foods into the diet is vital, and supplementation may be necessary. The best sources include cod liver oil; wild fish including sardines, salmon, mackerel and tuna; and raw milk, eggs and mushrooms.
9. Yoga. Stress, depression and anxiety are common with this condition. Practicing yoga a couple of times a week can help ease these side effects and improve mental focus and attitude. Yoga improves GABA levels, reducing anxiety and lessening depression symptoms naturally. (17)
10. Foods to Avoid. Any foods that irritate your digestive tract, cause a sensitivity or discomfort, or that you are allergic to, should be avoided. Foods that have been shown to cause problems in some vitiligo patients include:
- Citrus fruits
- Carbonated drinks
- Processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Fruit Juices
Of course, your “avoid list” must be tailored to your specific conditions and how your body reacts to individual foods. Wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef and lamb, and tomatoes may benefit some people while hurting others.
11. Foods to Enjoy
- Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, Swiss chard and Brussel sprouts
- Wild-caught fish
- Grass-fed beef and liver
- Cottage Cheese
- Nutritional yeast
- Dark chocolate
- Blackstrap molasses
- Raw dairy
12. Gingko Biloba. A study published in the journal International Society for Complementary Medicine Research found that gingko biloba can cause repigmentation. In this study, participants were given 60 milligrams, twice a day for twelve weeks. At least 25 percent of the participants achieved a “clinically significant improvement” and 30 percent achieved repigmentation. (18, 19)
In addition to helping with the repigmentation, gingko biloba is known to aid in depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Gingko biloba is considered safe; however, it may interfere with anticoagulants and antiplatelet agents; talk to your physician about all supplements, particularly before any type of surgery or after a trauma.
13. Stay Hydrated. Skin health is dependent on hydration levels. It is imperative to drink plenty of fresh, clean water throughout the day. If you want to follow Ayurveda practice, keep it in a copper container for 24 hours before drinking. In addition, adding coconut water to your diet can help balance electrolytes, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress.
14. Turmeric and Mustard Oil. Topical application of a mixture of turmeric powder and mustard oil may result in positive changes in the pigment of the skin. Simply mix a couple of tablespoons of a high-quality turmeric powder with just enough mustard oil to make a paste. Apply to desired areas, and leave on a minimum of 20 minutes before rinsing with warm water. Do this twice a day for at least two weeks. Be mindful that turmeric will stain clothing, so be careful!
15. Clothing. Avoid clothing with elastic or tight clothing that restricts circulation as it might lead to a vitiligo patch. In addition, protect the skin from the sun and artificial sources of UV light with protective clothing or a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Watch skin reactions to plastic, rubber and even leather as these can cause vitiligo in some people.
16. Stress Management. One of the most important vitiligo treatments is to manage stress. Our minds play a crucial part in healing, and the more stress we have, the harder it is for our bodies to heal. In addition to yoga, massage, meditation, regular exercise, talk therapy and support groups should be incorporated. For young children and teens afflicted with vitiligo, it is imperative that emotional support and talk therapy is given as much (or more) consideration as traditional treatments; bullying is common, often resulting in low self-esteem, depression and withdrawal.
Vitiligo sufferers may have an increased risk of developing hearing loss, eye problems, sunburn, skin cancer and social or psychological distress.
Many conventional treatments have serious side effects; talk about all potential side effects with your doctor.
- Conventional vitiligo treatment and natural vitiligo treatment may take weeks, months or even years to work.
- Vitiligo is believed to be caused by autoimmune disorders, but may also be a result of certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
- Exposure to industrial chemicals, stress and a severe sunburn may trigger vitiligo.
- People treated for skin cancer with immunotherapy may develop vitiligo.
- Depigmentation of the skin can lead to severe emotional and mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and withdrawal from social circles. Seek support from groups including the American Vitiligo Research Foundation, National Vitiligo Foundation, and Vitiligo Support.