MYTH 1 In vitiligo the pigment producing cells (melanocytes) are destroyed.
If, like many of us, you are in the habit of googling around the subject of vitiligo you will have come across a large number of websites and articles that describe vitiligo as a condition in which white patches occur on the skin as a result of the destruction of melanocytes. You are even quite likely to have been told this by your doctor. But, thankfully, it simply isn’t true. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence show that the melanocytes in vitiligo-depigmented skin are not dead but merely dormant or blocked in some way and that they can – with the right treatment – be revived.
MYTH 2 Diet has no role to play in vitiligo.
This is a favourite with most doctors. Whilst the medical profession in general pay lip service to “eating a healthy, balanced diet” for general health, doctors are nearly always skeptical on the subject of the part that nutrition may play in specific diseases. And, in my experience, any suggestion that food choices could have an impact on vitiligo is usually met with a patronising smile and a dismissive wave of the hand. I find this attitude totally mystifying, given that all of the internal chemical and biological processes of the human body rely on the fuel that we put into it and that it has been self-evident to generations of lay people that “you are what you eat”. I can only put this complete lack of joined up thinking down to the fact that medical doctors receive very little education in nutrition and are so influenced by the drug companies that they have lost touch with the teachings of the founding father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, whose motto was “Let food be they medicine”.
MYTH 3 Vitiligo sufferers are at higher risk of developing skin cancer as a result of sun exposure.
For years vitiligo sufferers were given this warning. But, as it turns out, this belief was based on an assumption, not on fact. To be fair, this assumption was based on a logical thought process. Pigment is known to protect the skin from sun damage, therefore it should follow that lack of pigment will leave it more vulnerable to such damage, including skin cancers. However, research has proved that, in the case of vitiligo, the opposite is in fact true.
MYTH 4 If you have vitiligo you should stay out of the sun and/or wear sunblock.
In light of the previous point, this well intentioned advice has to be open to question. If vitiligo sufferers are less likely to get skin cancer, it is probably less crucial for them to protect themselves from the sun. But there are also three additional reasons why it might be wise to ignore this advice. One is that many people with vitiligo – especially those who are also using either a topical or oral treatment – experience repigmentation when exposed to UV light so avoiding it can be counterproductive. The second is that lack of sun exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency, something that many people with vitiligo already suffer from. And the third is that wearing sun block can actually make vitiligo worse due to the chemical ingredients in many of these formulations. Phenols, in particular, are known to increase the already high levels of hydrogen peroxide present in the skin of those of the typical vitiligo sufferer.
MYTH 5 Vitiligo is a purely cosmetic problem.
This opinion is yet another fiction created through constant repetition. How many of us have heard it from the lips of well-meaning medical practitioners who no doubt think they are helping us to achieve a sense of proportion about something that is, after all, not a life-threatening condition? However, the fact is that for many people vitiligo is a very serious psychological and social problem. It is the cause of a great deal of anxiety for some and chronic depression for others. And, in some cultures, it can result in stigmatisation and social isolation. Not only that, but some in the scientific community are finally coming round to the view that vitiligo rarely (if ever) exists in a vacuum. It is almost always associated with other diseases and there is good reason to think that it is itself a symptom of other underlying systemic conditions.
MYTH 6 There is no difference in texture between vitiliginous skin and normal skin.
This is another assertion that can be found in numerous articles but is not necessarily borne out by experience. I accept that there may be a number of different types of vitiligo and my experience may not match everyone else’s. But the fact is that my white patches always exhibited an accelerated rate of skin-renewal compared to the rest of my skin. Whereas my normal skin would remain smooth and shed dead cells at the normal rate, my white patches would develop a build-up of dead skin cells every few days that would peel off quite easily when rubbed firmly with finger tips. In addition to this, an itchy, bumpy rash accompanied the onset of many of the lesions and, in some cases, this would flare up again from time to time.
MYTH 7 There is no cure for vitiligo.
This – I’m very glad to say – is the biggest myth of them all. There may not be a magic pill, inoculation or operation that will guarantee to reverse vitiligo, or prevent its onset. But there are many effective treatments that have been developed over the years as a result of conventional wisdom, trial and error and medical research. The scientific and anecdotal evidence for this is overwhelming and I am just one example among many of this fact.
So my message to everyone reading this is simple: when your doctor, dermatologist, best friend, newspaper or trusted website dispenses well-meaning, but depressing, advice about vitiligo, bear in mind that it ain’t necessarily so. I’m here to tell you that your dormant melanocytes are not dead; what you eat does make a difference to your condition; you are not at higher risk of skin cancer than other people; you don’t necessarily have to accept what the professionals tell you about what vitiligo is or isn’t - or how yours should or shouldn’t behave - and - most importantly of all - it is reversible :)
My name is Caroline.