White spots on the skin (also called hypopigmentation) are predominately fungal in origin, although they are sometimes a symptom of an autoimmune condition. They can often be treated easily at home; however, you should see a dermatologist first to determine their cause and the right treatment.
Major Causes of White Skin Spots
Keep in mind that white patches might be caused by any one of these conditions or absolutely none of them. These are some common causes of white spots that appear on the skin.
Sometimes seen in individuals who suffer from vitiligo, a halo nevus is a pink- or brown-toned mole surrounded by very light or white skin. There is no specific treatment required, although a yearly skin exam is recommended to rule out any abnormalities or malignant melanomas.
A lack or loss of pigment is known as hypopigmentation, which itself can be caused by any number of underlying conditions (such as vitiligo, anemia or tuberous sclerosis, among many others).
This condition typically affects the vulva, penis or anus. It manifests with symptoms which include thinning skin and white patches on skin. The patches may be localized or the plaques may spread over a wider area.
Chances are that you'll know there is something going on if you begin to present symptoms of morphea, which is a hardening and thickening of the skin. This skin condition causes red or purple patches to appear on the skin, usually on the torso, arms and legs. The patches eventually change to a yellow tint and develop a white center. They may eventually turn brown before finally becoming white.
Similar to eczema, pityriasis alba is a skin disorder that can cause round or oval white patches on the skin, which are sometimes flaky. The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology explains that these patches usually appear on the face, upper arms, neck and torso and are most prevalent in children and teenagers with dark skin. They are treated with prescription topical creams and do clear up, although the condition sometimes return.
One of the most common fungal causes of white spots on the skin is tinea versicolor, which is caused by a yeast called Malassezia furfur. It is related to the yeasts that cause athlete's foot, jock itch and ringworm, but unlike those conditions, it is not contagious.
Tinea versicolor can manifest with either red, brown or white spots on the skin. The red and brown spots clear up far more quickly than the white, but all are harmless. They generally occur during times of high humidity and in anyone who has oily skin or any issues with the immune or hormonal systems.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, tinea versicolor can be treated by a dermatologist who can prescribe a prescription treatment that kills yeast. Treatment depends on the location and how large the affected area of skin is. Affected skin may not regain its full color and may stay lighter or darker for weeks or even months. To keep skin tone even, avoid tanning and always protect your skin from the sun.
An over-the-counter treatment such as Tinactin or Lotrimin may clear the condition up. Or, if you have white spots over a large area, you can use a selenium shampoo such as Selsun Blue. Even after the spots clear, you may want to do some regular washing with such a shampoo to help prevent their return.
When white spots on skin become patches and spread, it is usually due to vitiligo, which is a hereditary condition whereby the skin loses melanin (pigment). Anyone can be affected, but it usually manifests most often in people with darker skin. While there is no cure, active treatment can slow the loss of pigment. Unfortunately, although there are a number of theories, what actually causes vitiligo is unknown.
The American Vitiligo Research Foundation recommends the following tactics to keep your skin healthy and to improve its overall appearance:
- Always use a sunscreen. Sunscreen not only protects the skin against harmful sun rays but minimizes tanning, which makes depigmented skin less noticeable.
- Use a concealer to cover white spots on the skin. Products such as Dermablend are designed to cover skin imperfections and can be used on various areas of the body.
- Visit a dermatologist who is knowledgeable about vitiligo. They can determine what is best for your skin and your specific condition.
Other Contributory Factors
White patches on skin may cause some alarm, if only because they typically appear very suddenly and unexpectedly. Despite their unwelcome effect on the skin, these patches are usually more aesthetically displeasing than anything else. They can be a symptom of a minor condition that is treated by a dermatologist, or they may be suggestive of something more serious. While determining what is causing these patches is a job best left to a dermatologist, two factors that could be causing white patches on your skin are:
Whether from fungus or from the intensity of the exposure, many people who regularly visit tanning salons notice white spots on the skin. Certain prescriptions, such as birth control pills and oral acne medications, can interfere with the skin's normal processes and make it more sensitive to light, which in turn can cause the skin to tan unevenly, resulting in white spots. Anyone taking such medications is probably wisest to avoid tanning salons. If the white spots are caused by a fungus, any over-the-counter antifungal cream will treat it within about two weeks, although you may still not tan evenly.
White spots on the skin can also be caused by skin damage from burns, infections or a problem with a laser. Laser damage is of note, because with the demand for laser hair removal or treatment for acne scars on the rise, more estheticians are getting a license to use a laser without having proper training or knowing how to properly assess a client's skin. It is very important to get a recommendation for a laser specialist from a trusted source such as your dermatologist.
Maintaining Skin Health
If you are prone to white spots for any reason, it is even more important to be vigilant about applying sunscreen year round. Skin that doesn't have the proper amount of melanin is more prone to permanent damage and requires good protection. The Skin Cancer Foundation grants its Seal of Recommendation to products that have been reviewed and meet the highest standards. When looking for a sunscreen, check for this seal to be sure you are getting the best protection possible.
In addition, following basic sun sense rules such as using a strong sunblock and wearing a hat and clothes that cover your skin when out during the brightest parts of the day should do a lot to keep the white spots from returning.
Since there are several possible causes for white patches, there are equally as many treatments. While these spots can be unsightly, they are not typically harmful. However, if the patches are widespread over the body or begin to enlarge, it is worth the peace of mind to undergo a thorough evaluation. Though a physician must prescribe medical treatments, several conditions may also benefit from home remedies. Ayurvedic remedies, for example, such as amla juice mixed with honey and neem leaf juice, are considered helpful treatments for vitiligo. Note that if your skin is very sensitive, it is best to avoid these or at the very least consult your doctor prior to use to ensure that it does not have any adverse effects on your prescription medications.