Skin injuries like sunburn or cuts can trigger vitiligo in individuals who are genetically predisposed to the skin condition. Melanocytes are the cells in the body responsible for producing melanin (skin pigment). Scientists believe exposure to stressors like severe sunburns, cuts, repeated pressure, rubbing, or scratching can cause oxidative stress to these skin pigment cells. Oxidative stress is a process that destroys cells in the body. In vitiligo, oxidative stress attacks and destroys melanocytes, leading to skin pigment loss.
This article will explain how sunburns and other skin injuries can trigger vitiligo or cause new white patches of skin to develop.
The specific cause of vitiligo remains unknown. However, health experts believe the condition is caused by multiple factors, such as:
Researchers have found that sunburn or skin injury is related to the onset of vitiligo in between 21 percent and 62 percent of people with the condition.
Many MyVitiligoTeam members report having a sunburn that triggered vitiligo. One member shared the first time they noticed their vitiligo develop: “I used to live in Arizona and go to the lake a lot. One day, I got a bad sunburn on my forehead. After a couple days my sunburn began to turn white.”
Studies have found that sunburns are a risk factor for vitiligo. One study found that white women with a childhood or adolescent history of sunburns with blisters after two hours of sun exposure had an increased risk of developing vitiligo. Large population-based studies have also found that people who sunburn but also have a high ability to tan have a higher risk of developing vitiligo.
Excessive sun exposure and ultraviolet (UV) damage increases the number of free radicals in the body and stress response within the skin. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage the body. They are naturally produced in the body, but they can also come from toxins in the environment, specifically UV rays. People living with vitiligo have an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants — compounds that protect our cells against free radicals. This imbalance gives rise to oxidative stress, triggering an immune system response against melanocytes.
Excessive sun exposure and UV damage also increases stress protein levels, specifically HSP70i, which has been shown to play a central role in vitiligo development.
Repeated skin trauma can induce an inflammatory response that triggers vitiligo. Examples of skin trauma include:
Getting a tattoo can also potentially worsen vitiligo.
The Koebner phenomenon occurs in some types of vitiligo more often than others. There is evidence that the KP is more common among children and adults with generalized vitiligo compared to segmental vitiligo. It is found in the commonly affected areas of the body, such as the fingers, knees, and elbows. The Koebner phenomenon also appears on parts of the body with long-term friction, pressure, or repeating movement caused by a belt or tight clothing.
However, it remains unclear whether or not the same type of trauma will cause KP in all areas of skin. Additionally, experts are still uncertain if the risk of KP in vitiligo is linked to ethnicity or skin color.
There are steps you can take to avoid or reduce damage to your skin, whether from sunburn or other injury. There is no guarantee that protecting your skin from damage will prevent vitiligo, but there are no downsides to preventing sunburn or reducing the chances of burns or cuts.
Using daily sun protection is one of the best ways to avoid damaging your skin. Sun protection is important for anyone with vitiligo, regardless of skin tone.
Following are some ways to protect yourself from sun damage:
Get a doctor’s perspective on sun protection and vitiligo.
Avoiding all injuries to the skin is impossible, but there are some proactive steps you can take to protect your skin.
If you have vitiligo triggered by skin injury or any other cause, there are treatment options, including oral or topical corticosteroids, light therapy, and surgery. Some people use cosmetics to camouflage their skin depigmentation. Others choose not to treat or camouflage their skin. You can talk to your doctor about what is best for you.
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In partnership with the Global Vitiligo Foundation, which strives to improve the quality of life for individuals with vitiligo through education, research, clinical care, and community support.