Last week I flagged up five coping strategies that are often adopted by vitiligo sufferers, unaware that they may actually cause further depigmentation. This week I will highlight a further five potentially counterproductive #vitiligo-solutions and, once again, suggest some alternatives that could achieve the desired outcome without running the risk of making matters worse.
1) Staying out of the sun
Conventional wisdom has it that anyone with vitiligo should stay in the shade on sunny days or, at least cover up with clothing and slap on plenty of sunscreen. The logic behind this, as most doctors will point out if asked, is to avoid burning the white patches of skin which have no tanning mechanism to protect them and to avoid the risk of skin cancer that this poses. Whilst it is certainly wise to avoid sunburn, there could be some pitfalls in taking this advice at face value. For a start, avoiding the sun carries a risk of vitamin D deficiency, a condition that many vitiligo patients suffer from to start with, so staying in the shade is only likely to increase this problem. Secondly, most commercially available sunscreens contain chemical irritants that may well trigger further depigmentation. And, thirdly, regular UV exposure (phototherapy) is known to be one of the most effective treatments for vitiligo, so avoiding it completely makes very little sense, especially given that research has shown that people with vitiligo are in fact less likely to develop skin cancer than those who do not have the condition.
I know from my own personal experience that it is possible to use sun exposure to help repigment vitiligo patches, as long as you do the following:
1) build up gradually from 5 or 10 minutes at a time, increasing slowly, depending on the strength of the sun and your skin type;
2) be consistent with these moderate sun sessions, ideally 3 times weekly; 3) take supplements that will provide natural sun protection from the inside (I found that taking daily doses of chlorophyll-rich green foods and supplements containing the precursors of melanin enabled me to stay out in the sun longer than I had previously tolerated);
4) only use chemical-free sunscreens and – in my opinion - only when absolutely necessary; and 5) use safe, measured doses of narrowband UVB if sun exposure is not an option.
2) Avoiding swimming in the sea
Like many people in this situation, I always avoided swimming when I had widespread vitiligo because being seen in a swimsuit was my worst nightmare. Unless you can bring yourself to shrug off the curious stares of others on the beach, there is probably no easy solution to this problem. But, the fact is that in avoiding salt water swimming for so many years, I may have been missing out on a potential therapy. Studies have shown that salt water can help treat and reduce flare ups of eczema, psoriasis and acne so it is well accepted as a skin therapy and is, in face, an important part of the Dead Sea therapy for vitiligo.
If you can't bring yourself to bare all at the seaside, you can achieve the same skin benefits (albeit without the addition of exercise, sunshine and sand castles) by adding Dead Sea salt to your bath water several times a week and using the mineral-rich black mud skin products from the same company.
Even products designed for use with skin conditions and recommended by dermatologists can contain many of the potentially irritant chemical ingredients found in regular cosmetics and most contain parabens and fragrances.
If you rely on camouflage products to help you cope with your vitiligo, I am not recommending you stop using them, but I would suggest you look closely at the ingredients, choose brands that have the fewest known irritants and only use them when you really need them.
My quest for a truly effective camouflage product that is guaranteed not to increase the risk of irritation and further depigmentation is still ongoing but, in the meantime, Viticolor Gel works well as a semi-permanent camouflage, since it stains the skin. To ensure you do not raise your skin's free radical levels when using it, I recommend waiting 15 minutes or so after application before sun exposure. This will minimise the loss of antioxidants that occurs when self-tans are exposed to UV light. Applying Vitix to the camouflaged areas once they are dry will boost antioxidant levels further and can stimulate new pigmentation at the same time, so the two products work well in tandem.
4) Eating a “healthy” diet
I must confess that during my repigmentation I relied heavily on supplementing my diet with the super-green formula that formed part of my recovery protocol. So, beyond daily doses of that, I didn't pay very much attention to what I put on my plate. But I have read enough since then to convince me that making the right food choices can give you a huge advantage if you are trying to regain your lost pigment. The problem, of course, is knowing what those right food choices are, given that sometimes the very foods we think of as being “healthy” can be the opposite for someone with an autoimmune condition. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and whole grains is, quite rightly, considered to be good for the general health of most people. But that doesn't mean that all fruits and all vegetables are a good choice for someone with vitiligo, since some (like tomatoes, peppers and other nightshades) can cause inflammation and increase the autoimmune response. And, for anyone whose pigment loss is linked to digestive issues, grains – and especially gluten - can be very problematic and the sugar content of fruit can compound a pre-existing candida problem.
I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all diet for vitiligo recovery because we are all different. But I have come to the conclusion (after a lot of reading and experimenting on myself!) that the following tips are likely to help in the vast majority of cases:
5) Worrying about your vitiligo
Of course, worrying doesn't really count as a vitiligo strategy. It's more like a natural consequence. Personally, I spent years alternating between two states of mind in relation to my vitiligo. Sometimes – usually when the patches were spreading – I obsessed over every change I saw in my skin. The rest of the time I lived in a state of total denial by covering up my patches and pretending they didn't exist. The trouble with that was that each time I caught sight of my two-tone skin I would grieve for my lost colour so it was almost like losing it all over again. Neither response was remotely constructive. Looking back now, I can see that both reactions were quite damaging mentally and physically, especially as stress is widely regarded as a trigger for vitiligo. What probably made matters worse was that I chose not to share my feelings with anyone else.
Thanks to the internet, social media and improved public and scientific awareness, it is much easier today to come to terms with having a condition like vitiligo. II would go so far as to say that modern communications have offered us freedom from our sense of isolation and hopelessness. So, if you find yourself trying to cope on your own or bottling up your fears and emotions like I did, I would highly recommend tapping in to the global online community of fellow “vitiligans”. “With a little help from their friends,” (to misquote a great song), many people not only “get by” but find they develop a much more positive outlook, or even embrace their vitiligo as something that has added to their quality of life in some way. Others of us have found effective ways of treating ourselves in the absence of constructive help from our doctors. Crucially, most of us have a much greater understanding of the condition now than at any time in history and a far stronger conviction that a universal cure is getting closer every day. In opening yourself up to these channels, not only will you find compassion, shared experience, friendships and a wealth of knowledge, but you will be able to offer these things to others too. And that can be every bit as therapeutic as being on the receiving end.
A vitiligo blogger since 2011. My name is Caroline. I had vitiligo for nearly 50 years before finding an effective treatment. I created this blog to share my experiences with others affected by this skin condition.