As summer approaches, the prospect of those lazy, hazy days ahead can be daunting – even deeply depressing – for anyone with vitiligo. The fact that the rest of the world is eagerly anticipating the pleasures and sense of freedom that come from spending time outdoors, in the garden or on the beach, enjoying sunny barbecues with friends and sporting the latest skimpy summer fashions just makes matters worse.
I honestly don’t believe that vitiligo sufferers are any more given to self-pity or paranoia than the rest of the population but it would be a heroic individual indeed who didn’t occasionally feel a twinge of envy at all those evenly-tanned bodies whose owners seem oblivious to their good fortune in having a healthy share of pigment. And it does take a great deal of self-control not to sometimes wonder why God singled you out to be the one person in a hundred who shuns the sun and reaches for more clothes and more makeup the hotter the weather becomes when all you really want to do – more than anything else in the world – is put on a swim suit and lie by the pool with everyone else.
Some brave souls now do what I never did in all the years I had vitiligo: they “come out”. Partly, I believe, thanks to the social media - which provides an opportunity for mutual support and safety in numbers – many people with vitiligo now feel that it is simpler, more honest and more likely to gain much-needed public awareness of the condition to bare their white patches for the entire world to see. I admire these people more than I can say. But I know – from many years of personal experience - that not everyone feels able to come out of the “vitiligo closet” and, for those people, a valuable part of their coping strategy is to cover up and avoid the curious glances and inevitable questions that are the lot of the vitiligo sufferer.
One way of doing this is to use a self-tan on the white patches to lessen the contrast with the surrounding skin or even camouflage the vitiligo completely. How successful this can be depends on the individual’s natural skin tone and the particular product they choose. I applied my first ever self-tan decades before the concept became a commercial reality. I was only about 7 years old when I came up with the idea of using cold teabags to stain my white skin to the same colour as the rest of me. The trick was, of course, to brew the teabags (and drink the tea by all means!) and let the bags cool before squeezing them to remove some of the excess moisture and then dabbing the residue onto the skin. Once dry, the stain was quite effective but had two major drawbacks: the tan washed off as soon as it came into contact with water and the treated skin smelled strongly of English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Earl Grey or whatever the infusion of the day had been!
Of course, once proper self-tans hit the high street I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. They were a life-saver during the summer months; without them, I think I would have become a hermit. My favourite was St Tropez because it had a colour guide which made it easier to apply to the white patches without streaking or straying too badly onto the surrounding, pigmented skin. Also, it was less orange and a little less stinky than most other self-tans on the market… and it lasted a few days longer than the teabags!
However, as I learned more about the underlying causes of depigmentation I came to realise that repeatedly applying products which contain numerous synthetic chemicals was only likely to make matters worse by increasing the already elevated levels of hydrogen peroxide on my skin and increasing the oxidative stress that researchers now know contributes to the development of vitiligo. Happily, I have almost fully re-pigmented over the past 4 years, thanks to a nutritional treatment that I accidentally found worked for me, but I still have some mottled white areas on my hands and feet which I prefer to camouflage during the summer. Since I have turned my back on the chemical-based self-tans, I once again decided to improvise with something natural, but this time I chose something that would last a few days longer than tea and that doesn’t create a craving for scones and cream every time you smell it: henna. It has been used as a natural hair dye and for decorative tattoos for centuries, so why shouldn’t it work as a self-tan too? Well, it does and I’ll explain how to go about applying it in part 2 of this blog post. :)
My name is Caroline.