Treatments & Products
- Autologous skin grafts. This type of skin grafting uses your own tissues (autologous). Your doctor removes tiny pieces of skin from one area of your body and attaches them to another. This procedure is sometimes used if you have small patches of vitiligo. Your doctor removes sections of your normal, pigmented skin (donor sites) and places them on the depigmented areas (recipient sites). Possible complications of this procedure include infection at the donor or recipient site. The recipient and donor sites may develop scarring, a cobblestone appearance, spotty pigmentation, or may fail to repigment at all.
- Blister grafting. In this procedure, your doctor creates blisters on your pigmented skin primarily by using suction. The tops of the blisters are then cut out and transplanted to a depigmented skin area where a blister of equal size has been created and removed. The risks of blister grafting include the development of a cobblestone appearance, scarring and lack of repigmentation. However, there's less risk of scarring with this procedure than with other types of skin grafting.
In a procedure called an autologous melanocyte transplant, your doctor takes a sample of your normal pigmented skin and places it in a laboratory dish containing a special cell culture solution to grow melanocytes. When the melanocytes in the culture solution have multiplied, they're transplanted to your depigmented skin patches. This procedure is experimental and performed only in a few institutions where vitiligo research is conducted.
The goal in treating vitiligo is to attempt to restore color (pigment) to your skin and improve your appearance. Depending on the type of therapy, treatment for vitiligo may take from six to 18 months. Treatment choices are based on the number of white patches you have and how widespread they are. Each person responds differently to treatment, and a particular therapy may not work for you.
- Topical corticosteroid therapy. Corticosteroids may help return color to your skin (repigmenting), particularly if they're started early in the disease. These drugs, which include cortisone, are similar to the hormones produced by your adrenal glands. Your doctor may prescribe a mild topical corticosteroid cream or ointment for children younger than 10 years old or a stronger form for adults. You may need to apply the cream or ointment to the white patches on your skin for at least three months before you see any results. This treatment is simple and safe, but your doctor will monitor you closely for side effects, such as skin shrinkage and streaks or lines on your skin (skin striae). Calcipotriene (Dovonex), a vitamin D derivative, also may be used topically and is sometimes used with corticosteroids or ultraviolet light.
- Topical psoralen plus ultraviolet A (PUVA). Topical PUVA may be a treatment option if you have a small number of depigmented patches (affecting less than 20 percent of your body). PUVA, also called photochemotherapy, is performed under artificial UVA light once or twice a week in your doctor's office. Your doctor or a nurse will apply a thin coating of psoralen to the depigmented patches of your skin about 30 minutes before UVA light exposure. You're then exposed to an amount of UVA light that turns the affected area of your skin pink. Your doctor may slowly increase the dose of UVA light over many weeks. Eventually, the pink areas of your skin fade and a more normal skin color appears.
Potential short-term side effects of topical PUVA therapy include severe sunburn and blistering and too much repigmentation or darkening of the treated patches or the normal surrounding skin (hyperpigmentation). You can minimize your chances of sunburn by avoiding exposure to direct sunlight after each treatment. Hyperpigmentation is usually a temporary problem and eventually disappears when treatment stops.
- Oral psoralen photochemotherapy (PUVA). Oral PUVA therapy may be used if you have extensive vitiligo (affecting more than 20 percent of your body) or if you haven't responded to topical PUVA therapy. Oral PUVA isn't recommended for children younger than 10 years of age because of an increased risk of damage to the eyes, such as cataracts. For oral PUVA therapy, you take a prescribed dose of psoralen by mouth about two hours before exposure to artificial UVA light or sunlight. Your doctor adjusts the dose of light until the skin areas being treated become pink. Treatments are usually given two or three times a week, with at least one day in between.
If you don't have access to a PUVA facility, your doctor may prescribe psoralen to be used with natural sunlight exposure. Your doctor will give you careful instructions on carrying out treatment at home and monitor your progress with frequent office visits.
Short-term side effects of oral PUVA may include sunburn, nausea and vomiting, itching, abnormal hair growth, and too much repigmentation or darkening of the treated patches or the normal surrounding skin (hyperpigmentation). If received for longer periods of time, this type of treatment may increase your risk of skin cancer. To avoid sunburn and reduce your risk of skin cancer, you'll need to apply sunscreen and avoid direct sunlight for 24 to 48 hours after each treatment. Wear protective UVA sunglasses for 18 to 24 hours after each treatment to avoid eye damage, particularly cataracts.
- Narrow-band Ultraviolet “B” (nbUVB) therapy. In recent years, special lamps have become available that emit only the very small and specific frequency of ultraviolet B light (“narrowband”, or nbUVB) that is medically effective in treating Vitiligo. This has become preferable to PUVA, which is rapidly falling out of favor. nbUVB treatments are administered much like PUVA, only without the need for the psoralen medications. This greatly simplifies the process and eliminates the many undesirable psoralen-related side effects. Over the last several decades, nbUVB phototherapy has proven to be a much safer and longer-term alternative to PUVA. It carries virtually no negative side effects and appears to be effective for the large majority of Vitiligo sufferers. Plus, as there are no medications required, home nbUVB systems are now a very practical reality to provide long-term regimentation for most people in the privacy of their own home (and without continual co-payments and trips to the office).
- Depigmentation. Depigmentation involves fading the rest of the skin on your body to match the already-white areas. If you have vitiligo on more than 50 percent of your body, depigmentation may be the best treatment option. In this procedure, the drug monobenzone (Benoquin) is applied twice a day to the pigmented areas of your skin until they match the already-depigmented areas. Avoid direct skin-to-skin contact with others for at least two hours after applying the drug.
The major side effect of depigmentation therapy is redness and swelling (inflammation) of the skin. You may experience itching, dry skin or abnormal darkening of the membrane that covers the white of your eyes. Depigmentation is permanent and cannot be reversed. In addition, if you undergo depigmentation you will always be extremely sensitive to sunlight.
by Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, MD , Ph.D
Myths About Vitiligo Treatment
Three myths about the treatment of vitiligo prevail in the medical profession.
The first myth is that treatment of vitiligo is "impossible." This is clearly not true and the majority of patients can achieve good results.
The second myth is that oral psoralens, which form the basis for some vitiligo treatments are "toxic to the liver." Oral psoralens are not toxic to the liver.
The third myth is that psoralen + UVA (PUVA) treatments for vitiligo "cause cancer of the skin." When used to treat vitiligo, PUVA therapy requires only a limited number of treatments-approximately 150 in number that has not been shown to cause skin cancer. By comparison, PUVA treatments for psoriasis can be as many as double the number for vitiligo. It has been shown that a small percentage of patients who receive more than 250 PUVA treatments can develop treatable squamous cell cancers of the skin.
Vitiligo Treatment Options
Four options are currently available for the treatment of vitiligo: sunscreens; cover-up; restoration of normal skin color; and bleaching of normal skin with topical creams to remove normal skin pigment to make an even color.
The two goals of sunscreen treatments are: to protect unpigmented involved skin from sunburn reaction and to limit the tanning of normal pigmented skin. The sun protection factor (SPF) of sunscreens should be no less than SPF 30, as this grade blocks not only erythema, but also the affects of sunlight on the DNA of the skin cells. Sunscreen treatment skin phototypes 1, 2, and sometimes 3 (those who burn, then tan to some degree).
The goal of cover-up with dyes or make-up is to hide the white macules so that the vitiligo is less visible. Self-tanning lotions and camouflage are quite helpful for some patients.
Restoring Normal Skin Color
Restoration of normal skin color can take the form of spot treatments or whole body treatment.
Spot Treatment: Topical Corticosteroid Creams
Initial treatment with certain topical corticosteroid creams is practical, simple, and safe. If there is no response in 2 months, it is unlikely to be effective. Physician monitoring every 2 months for signs of early steroid atrophy (thinning of the skin) is required.
Spot Treatment: Topical Oxsoralen
Much more complicated is the use of topical Oxsoralen (8-MOP). Oxsoralen is highly phototoxic (likely to cause a sunburn), and the phototoxicity lasts for 3 days or more. This should be performed only as an office procedure, only for small spots, and only by experienced physicians on well-informed patients. As with oral psoralens, 15 or more treatments may be required to initiate a response, and 100 or more to finish.
Spot Treatment: Mini Grafting
Mini grafting, which involves transplanting the patient's normal skin to vitiligo affected areas, may be a useful technique for refractory segmental vitiligo macules. PUVA may be required following the procedure to unify the color between the graft sites. The demonstrated occurrence of Koebnerization in donor sites in generalized vitiligo restricts this procedure to patients who have limited skin areas at risk for vitiligo. "Pebbling" of grafted site may occur.
Whole Body Treatment: PUVA Photochemotherapy (Oral Psoralens + UVA Irradiation)
For more widespread vitiligo, treatment with oral psoralen + UVA (PUVA) is practical. This may be done with sunlight and trimethylpsoralen (Trisoralen) or with artificial UVA (in the doctor's office or at an approved phototherapy facility) and Trisoralen or Oxsoralen-Ultra.
Ophthalmologic examination and ANA blood tests are required before starting PUVA therapy. Outdoor therapy may be initiated with 0.6 mg/kg Trisoralen followed 2 hours later by 5 minutes of New England sunlight (less in southern regions). Treatments should be twice weekly, not 2 days in a row, and sunlight exposure should increase by 3 to 5 minutes per treatment until there is a sign of response, and in a few this causes koebnerization. Individualization is required: treatment options are either 0.4 mg/kg of Oxsoralen-Ultra (well absorbed, efficient potentially very phototoxic, significant risk of nausea) or 0.6 mg/kg of Trisoralen (variably absorbed, not very phototoxic, little nausea).
Initial UVA exposure should be 1.0 J and increments (twice weekly, not two days in a row) 0.5 (Oxsoralen-Ultra) to 1.0 (Trisoralen) J per treatment until there is evidence of response of phototoxicity. The later is the sustaining UVA dose until reasonable repigmentation has been established.
PUVA is up to 85% effective in over 70% of patients with vitiligo of the head, neck, upper arms, legs, and trunk. Distal hands and feet are poorly responsive and alone are not usually worth treating. Genital areas should be shielded and not treated. Macules that have totally repigmented usually stay in the absence of injury/sunburn (85% likelihood up to 10 years), macules less than fully repigmented will slowly reverse once treatments have been discontinued. Maintenance treatments are required.
Risks of treating vitiligo with PUVA include nausea, GI upset, sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and acute dryness. We advise against oral PUVA treatments for children under age 10. Treatment is most likely to be successful in highly motivated patients who clearly have reasonable objectives and understand the risks and benefits. While PUVA is not a cure, most patients who are responding well to treatment are not at the same time developing new vitiligo macules.
Topical Creams To Remove Normal Skin Pigment And Unify Skin Color
The goal of depigmentation is to unify skin color in patients with vitiligo virtually all over the body and those who have failed PUVA, who cannot use PUVA, or who reject the PUVA option. Bleaching with monobenzylether of hydroquinone 20% cream (Benoquin) is a permanent, irreversible process. Since application of Benoquin may be associated with distant depigmentation, Benoquin cannot be used to selectively to bleach certain areas of normal pigmentation, because there is a real likelihood that new and distant white macules will develop over the months of use. Bleaching with Benoquin normally requires twice-daily possible side effects. Uncommonly, contact dermatitis is observed. The success rate is about 93%. Periodically following sun exposure, an occasional patient will observe focal repigmentation, which will require a month or so of local use of Benoquin to reverse.
The end-stage color of skin bleached with Benoquin is the same chalk-white as the vitiligo macules. Most patients are quite satisfied with uniformity and the finality of the results. An occasional patient may wish to take 30 to 60 mg beta-carotene to impart on off-white color to the skin. The only side effect of beta-carotene is the uncommon risk of diarrhea.
Patients who undergo bleaching are at risk for sunburn. They should avoid midday sun exposure and should use a high-SPF sunscreen. To date no long-term untoward effects have been reported from the use of monobenzylether of hydroquinone for skin bleaching.
Why Is It Important To Treat Vitiligo?
Many physicians, and even some dermatologists, fail to recognize the profound social and psychological impact vitiligo may have on its victims. Vitiligo is painless and non-pruritic and, unlike psoriasis, it is not associated with shedding of skin scales. But the disfigurement of vitiligo, accentuated among persons with brown or black skin, can be devastating.
The recent media publicity about Michael Jackson's battle with vitiligo has helped raise public awareness of the disease. While vitiligo is worldwide and affects all races equally, it is a particularly troubling social problem for persons whose normal skin color is brown or black. The contrast between brown skin and white vitiligo spots can create a grotesque "harlequin" appearance. The same kind of disfigurement can become a problem for vitiligo victims with normally fair skin who tan deeply during the summer months or, among those who live in sunny climates, throughout the year.
In India, vitiligo, or "leukoderma" as it is called there, is regarded as "white leprosy." The late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ranked vitiligo as one of three major medical problems in India, alongside malaria and leprosy. A woman in India cannot marry if she has even one spot of vitiligo, and if a woman develops vitiligo after marriage it is considered grounds for divorce.
It is no wonder vitiligo patients can turn aggressive, feel a sense of shame, or become withdrawn and resentful. For many, vitiligo is not just a cosmetic problem-it is a major social dysfunction that seriously curtails their ability to lead a normal work, social or married life. Reversal of the white spots and restoration of normal skin color is therefore the primary hope for all these disfigured vitiligo patients.
Fitzpatriack TB, Eisen AZ, Wolff K, etal. "Disorders of Pigmentation"
In: Dermatology In General Medicine, 4th ed., edited by TB Fitzpatrick et al. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Fitzpatrick TB, Johnson RA, Woff K etal. "Vitiligo" In: Color Atlas and Synopsis of Clinical Dermatology, 3rd ed. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1997. Ortonne JP. Mosher DB. Fitzpatrick TB. Vitiligo and Other Hypomelanoses of Hair and Skin. New York, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1983.