Understanding Vitiligo & What Happens Within the Skin

This article is sponsored by Incyte.

Vitiligo is a chronic autoimmune condition that manifests as white patches of depigmented skin, or a complete loss of color, on affected areas of the body. The condition can have a significant impact on people’s lives and affects an estimated 1.9 to 2.8 million people in the United States. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about vitiligo, which can cause people with the condition to feel misunderstood and may also hinder the proper understanding and management of vitiligo.

A deeper understanding of the science of vitiligo – and the complex immune processes taking place within the skin that cause the depigmentation – can empower people with the condition and help them make more informed decisions about managing their vitiligo.


Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition (meaning the immune system isn’t working correctly) that is characterized by depigmentation of skin. It is not contagious, and it is much more than a cosmetic issue.

Vitiligo can affect people of all races and backgrounds; it can occur at any age, although initial symptoms typically emerge before the age of 30. Research has shown that people with vitiligo also have a higher likelihood of experiencing other autoimmune disorders such as thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

There are two main types of vitiligo: segmental and nonsegmental. Segmental vitiligo is characterized by white patches on only one side or area of the body, while nonsegmental vitiligo, the most common form, features white patches appearing on both sides of the body.


To gain a better understanding of vitiligo, it is helpful to also understand the processes of pigmentation (how pigment is produced and distributed in the skin) and depigmentation (how pigment is lost from the skin) in vitiligo.

In the body, a pigment called melanin produces the color seen in the skin; it is transported throughout the skin, giving a consistent look and color. Melanin is produced by special cells called melanocytes. People with darker skin tones typically have more melanin. In vitiligo, the immune system mistakenly recognizes melanocytes as harmful, and attacks and destroys these cells. This leads to a loss of melanin, resulting in depigmented white patches of skin.

Depigmentation can appear on any part of the body (usually on the hands, feet, arms, torso and face) and, in some cases, the hair. The depigmentation process can take time and vary greatly between people. Many factors can contribute to the rate of depigmentation, including genetics and external elements like stress and medications. For people with nonsegmental vitiligo, depigmentation can have a particularly unpredictable course.


While there is no cure for vitiligo, the condition can be managed in partnership with a dermatologist, including options that may help with repigmentation, if desired. An individualized management plan is important. Like depigmentation, repigmentation is a long and complex process that can vary depending on the individual as well as the location of the white patches on the body. 


For people with vitiligo, a better understanding of what’s happening within the skin can help set their management goals and educate others around them. More public understanding can also lead to fewer misconceptions about vitiligo and greater support for those living with the condition.

To get a more in-depth look at the science behind vitiligo, watch the video above. For more information about vitiligo, or to become an advocate and share your own vitiligo story, visit ThisIsVitiligo.com.

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