Part 1: how transparent are you?
It's a pleasantly warm July morning here in the north of England (yes, we really do get them sometimes) but there is still some hazy cloud cover so I am doing what I often do when I am at home at this time of the year and it's not sunny enough to work on my tan. I'm deep in blog research mode.
Sometimes I have a very clear idea of what I want to write about and other times – like today – I just see where google takes me. I currently have no less than eighteen tabs open on my browser because I keep jumping from one fascinating subject to another and back again. And, as I do so, my topic for this week slowly starts to reveal itself, dare I say, like a new patch of #vitiligo emerging gradually from the surrounding skin until it is fully formed!
I have written before about how amazingly diverse human skin colours and types are and about some of the many factors that influence this #diversity.
But it is a massive subject and today I find myself ricocheting off it in several intriguing directions at once (hence the many tabs). So, as I have no wish to confuse you, or myself, by tackling all of them at once, I will explore each topic separately over the next few weeks.
I shall have no difficulty in making part 1 of this series very clear – literally – because it is all about #transparency. I never used to think in terms of skin being either transparent or opaque. My professional background is in image consultancy and colour analysis, so the uniqueness of each individual's colouring has always interested me. But I had been taught to think in terms of depth, clarity and undertone, i.e. whether a person's colouring was deep, light, bright, muted, warm or cool. How #opaque their skin was didn't really come into it (although I think some colour analysts nowadays do take this into account when advising their clients on clothing and makeup).
What set me off thinking about the transparency, or otherwise, of skin was seeing this amazing picture of a newly discovered species of “Glass Frog” from Central America.
Being able to see its internal organs through the skin is a very visual reminder of the fact that skin is the living packaging that keeps our insides in and the external world out. And, whilst no human on earth (as far as I know) has such remarkable see-through packaging as this little Costa Rican creature, it is certainly true to say that human skin can also vary considerably in translucency. The best way I can describe it is to say that some people's skin looks like a delicate water colour whereas others' is more like an oil painting.
This seems to be true of all races although, in general, the darker the skin the more opaque it is likely to be. Some very fair-skinned white people have such a delicate skin that their veins are visible through it, whilst others are just as fair but completely opaque and this can also be the case with black and Asian skin tones: some have a sheer luminosity behind them and others are more “solid”. Some people with translucent skin are bothered by how “thin” their skin looks but, personally, I find all combinations of skin colour and opacity equally beautiful.
What is a bit weirder though is when a person has both types of skin at once, which is what can happen if you have vitiligo. Over the years, as my vitiligo developed, I noticed that the white patches were the water colour (i.e. translucent) and the normal skin was the oil paint (since my normal skin tone is quite opaque). This was especially apparent when I tried to camouflage the depigmented areas. I noticed that the depth and tone of the camouflage were not the only characteristics to be considered in choosing a suitable product. It also had to have the right texture in order to add opacity to the translucent vitiligo patch.
Oprah Winfrey's description of Michael Jackson's appearance is an example of the way in which a lack of pigment increases the transparency of a person's skin. She says, "Anybody who knew Michael Jackson will tell you that when you are up close to him—he had absolutely no pigmentation in his skin—you are looking at his veins when you look at his hand. You are seeing through to the blue veins, and they’re very, very apparent... You’re looking at a person who is almost translucent.”
My gradual repigmentation over the past few years has been even more interesting in this respect than the original depigmentation process because of all the varied levels of opacity I have observed on the patches as they regained their colour. In particular, the blue veins on my feet and hands, inner wrists and underside of my arms had been very conspicuous when they lost their colour. It was a bit like looking at seaweed from a glass bottom boat!
But, when the pigment started to come back, it did so in two completely different ways. Some of it returned as opaque freckles on the still translucent background, almost like barnacles on the boat's window. But in other areas the whole vitiligo patch gradually turned from translucent to more opaque, as if the boat had stirred up the sandy seabed creating a murky wash of colour. On the whole, these latter areas have a more even tone than the freckled ones because I didn't have to wait for them to join up. However, the non-freckled patches of #repigmentation have been slower to regain their opacity and some of them (mainly on my hands and feet) have remained a little lighter than the rest of my skin, though still flesh-coloured as opposed to white.
The freckled variety of repigmentation is well documented and can be split into three categories: perifollicular, where tiny dots of pigment form at the site of the hair follicles; marginal, where it forms at the outer borders of the vitiligo patches; and diffuse, where it occurs in freckles across the entire lesion. Whilst most of mine has been diffuse, I cannot find a description for the gradual reappearance of uniform skin colour that I experienced on some areas of my body, so I have no idea whether this kind of repigmentation even has a name.
If anyone else has similar experiences of various styles of repigmentation I'd love to hear from you. Meanwhile, I'll be back next week with part 2 of my Weird and Wonderful World of Skin Colour!
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.