Treatment for vitiligo is based on changing the appearance of the skin by restoring its colour.
However, the effects of treatment are not usually permanent, and it cannot always control the spread of the condition.
A GP may recommend:
- sun safety
- a referral for camouflage creams
- a topical steroid (a cream or ointment that contains a steroid)
Further treatment may not be necessary if, for example, you only have a small patch of vitiligo or your natural skin colour is very light.
You may be referred to a doctor who specialises in treating skin conditions (dermatologist) if further treatment is needed.
Protection from the sun
Sunburn is a severe risk if you have vitiligo. You must protect your skin from the sun and do not use sunbeds.
When skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect it from ultraviolet (UV) light. However, if you have vitiligo there is not enough melanin in your skin, so it is not protected.
Always apply a sunscreen, ideally with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above, to protect your skin from sunburn and long-term damage. This is particularly important if you have fair skin.
If your skin is not exposed to the sun, there's an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is essential for keeping bones and teeth healthy.
Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, although a form of vitamin D is also found in some foods, such as oily fish.
It might be difficult to get enough vitamin D from food and sunlight alone. You should therefore consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D.
Skin camouflage creams can be applied to the white patches of skin. The creams are made to match your natural skin colour. The cream helps to blend the white patches with the rest of your skin, so they are not as noticeable.
For advice about skin camouflage, a GP may refer you to the Changing Faces Skin Camouflage Service.
You need to be trained in using the camouflage creams, but the service is free (although donations are welcome) and some creams can be prescribed on the NHS.
Camouflage creams are waterproof and can be applied anywhere on the body. They last for up to 4 days on the body and 12 to 18 hours on the face.
You can also get skin camouflage cream that contains sunscreen or has an SPF rating.
Topical steroids come as a cream or ointment you apply to your skin.
They can sometimes stop the spread of the white patches and may restore some of your original skin colour.
A topical steroid may be prescribed to adults if:
- you have non-segmental vitiligo on less than 10% of your body
- you want further treatment (sun protection and camouflage creams are enough for some people)
- you are not pregnant
- you understand and accept the risk of side effects
Speak to a GP if you want to use a topical steroid on your face.
Find out more about topical steroids.
Using topical steroids
A GP may prescribe a cream or an ointment, depending on what you prefer and where it will be used. Ointments are greasier. Creams are better in your joints – for example, inside your elbows.
Possible steroids that may be prescribed include:
- fluticasone propionate
- betamethasone valerate
- hydrocortisone butyrate
A GP will tell you how to apply the cream or ointment to the patches and how much you should use. You usually need to apply the treatment once a day.
Topical steroids are measured in a standard unit called the fingertip unit (FTU). One FTU is the amount of topical steroid squeezed along an adult's fingertip. One FTU is enough to treat an area of skin twice the size of an adult's hand.
After 1 month, you'll have a follow-up appointment so the GP can check how well the treatment is working and whether you have any side effects. If the treatment is causing side effects, you may need to stop using a topical steroid.
After another month or 2, the GP will check how much your vitiligo has improved. If there's no improvement, you may be referred to a dermatologist.
If it's improved slightly, you may continue treatment, but have a break from treatment every few weeks. You may also be referred to a dermatologist.
Treatment will be stopped if your vitiligo has improved significantly.
The GP may take photos of your vitiligo throughout your treatment to monitor any signs of improvement. You may also want to take photos yourself.
Side effects of topical steroids include:
- streaks or lines in your skin (striae)
- thinning of your skin (atrophy)
- visible blood vessels appearing (telangiectasia)
- excess hair growth (hypertrichosis)
- inflammation of your skin (contact dermatitis)
A GP may refer you to a dermatologist if:
- they're unsure about your diagnosis
- you're pregnant and need treatment
- more than 10% of your body is affected by vitiligo
- you're distressed about your condition
- your face is affected and you want further treatment
- you cannot use topical steroids because of the risk of side effects
- you have segmental vitiligo and want further treatment
- treatment with topical steroids has not worked
Children with vitiligo who need treatment will also be referred to a dermatologist.
In some cases, you may be prescribed strong topical steroids while you're waiting to be seen by a dermatologist.
Some treatments a dermatologist may recommend are:
Topical pimecrolimus or tacrolimus
Pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are a type of medicine called calcineurin inhibitors, which are usually used to treat eczema.
Pimecrolimus and tacrolimus are unlicensed for treating vitiligo, but they can be used to help restore skin pigment in adults and children with vitiligo.
They can cause side effects, such as:
- a burning or painful sensation when applied to the skin
- making skin more sensitive to sunlight
- facial redness (flushing) and skin irritation if you drink alcohol
However, unlike steroids, pimecrolimus and tacrolimus do not cause thinning of the skin.
Phototherapy (treatment with light) may be used for children or adults if:
- topical treatments have not worked
- the vitiligo is widespread
- the vitiligo is having a significant impact on your quality of life
Evidence suggests that phototherapy, particularly when combined with other treatments, has a positive effect on vitiligo.
During phototherapy, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet A (UVA) or ultraviolet B (UVB) light from a special lamp. You may first take a medicine called psoralen, which makes your skin more sensitive to the light. Psoralen can be taken by mouth (orally), or it can be added to your bath water.
This type of treatment is sometimes called PUVA (psoralen and UVA light).
Phototherapy may increase the risk of skin cancer because of the extra exposure to UVA rays. The risk of skin cancer is lower with UVB light. Your dermatologist should discuss the risk with you before you decide to have phototherapy.
Sunlamps that you can buy to use at home for light therapy are not recommended. They're not as effective as the phototherapy you'll receive in hospital. The lamps are also not regulated, so they may not be safe.
A skin graft is a surgical procedure where healthy skin is removed from an unaffected area of the body and used to cover an area where the skin has been damaged or lost. To treat vitiligo, a skin graft can be used to cover a white patch.
Skin grafts may be considered for adults in areas that are affecting your appearance if:
- no new white patches have appeared in the past 12 months
- the white patches have not become worse in the past 12 months
- the vitiligo was not triggered by skin damage, such as severe sunburn (Koebner response)
An alternative to skin grafting involves taking a sample of skin, removing the melanocytes from it and transplanting them onto the areas of vitiligo.
These types of treatments are time consuming, carry a risk of scarring and are not suitable for children. They're also not widely available in the UK and are not funded by the NHS.
Depigmentation may be recommended for adults who have vitiligo on more than 50% of their bodies, although it may not be widely available.
During depigmentation, a lotion is painted on to the normal skin to bleach the remaining pigment and make it the same colour as the depigmented (white) skin. A hydroquinone-based medicine is used, which has to be applied continuously to prevent the skin from re-pigmenting.
Hydroquinone can cause side effects, such as:
Depigmentation is usually permanent and leaves the skin with no protection from the sun. Re-pigmentation (when the colour returns) can happen, and may differ from your original skin colour. Applying depigmenting treatments in one area of skin can sometimes cause loss of pigmentation in skin on other parts of the body.
A dermatologist may recommend trying more than 1 treatment, such as phototherapy combined with a topical treatment. Other possible treatments include:
- excimer laser – high-energy beams of light that are used in laser eye treatment, but may also be used in phototherapy (not available on the NHS)
- vitamin D analogues – such as calcipotriol, which may also be used with phototherapy
- azathioprine – a medicine that suppresses your immune system
- prednisolone tablets – a steroid, which has also been used with phototherapy; it can cause side effects
Some complementary therapies claim to relieve or prevent vitiligo. However, there's no evidence to support their effectiveness, so more research is needed before they can be recommended.
There's very limited evidence that the herbal remedy ginkgo biloba may benefit people with non-segmental vitiligo. There's currently no evidence to recommend it.
Check with a GP if you decide to use herbal remedies. Some remedies can react unpredictably with medicines or make them less effective.
Counselling and support groups
If you have vitiligo, you may find it helpful to join a vitiligo support group. It can help you understand more about your condition and come to terms with your skin's appearance.
Charities such as The Vitiligo Society, may be able to put you in touch with a local support group (you may need to become a member first). A GP may also be able to suggest a support group.
If you have psychosocial symptoms – for example, your condition is causing you distress – a GP may refer you to a psychologist or a counsellor for treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
CBT is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.
Many treatments used for vitiligo are unlicensed. "Unlicensed" means the medicine's manufacturer has not applied for a licence for it to be used to treat your condition. The medicine has not undergone clinical trials to see whether it's effective and safe in treating your condition.
Doctors may recommend using an unlicensed medicine if they think it will be effective, and the benefits of treatment outweigh any associated risk. Before prescribing an unlicensed medicine, they should inform you it's unlicensed, and discuss the possible risks and benefits with you.