Hypopigmentation vs. Vitiligo: What Are the Differences?

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Hypopigmentation and vitiligo are skin conditions characterized by patches of skin that are lighter than the rest of the body. They occur when specialized skin cells (melanocytes) do not make enough of the skin-darkening pigment called melanin, which leads to partial or complete loss of skin pigmentation (color).

"Hypopigmentation" is a general term to describe a reduction in skin pigmentation, which can be present at birth or develop later in life from illness, injury, or certain medications. Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin pigmentation disorder that develops when the immune system destroys melanocytes. It is associated with smooth, chalky-white patches on the skin.

Though the two may appear similar, hypopigmentation and vitiligo are different. Read on to learn more.

A woman with vitiligo smiles on a Zoom call.

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Symptoms 

Vitiligo and hypopigmentation involve the loss of skin pigmentation in spots or patches. These patches may be limited to one area of the skin or occur all over the body. 

Hypopigmentation Symptoms

Hypopigmentation does not typically cause symptoms beyond the appearance of light patches or spots on one area or several parts of the body. If an underlying health issue is causing hypopigmentation, you may have signs and symptoms of that particular condition. 

Vitiligo Symptoms

The primary symptom of vitiligo is the appearance of smooth, flat white spots or patches on the skin. Patches can develop anywhere on the body but are commonly found on the hands, feet, and face. 

Other vitiligo symptoms include:

  • Whitening of hair, particularly on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard
  • Loss of color in the inner layer of the eye (retina
  • Itchy skin on affected areas 
  • Loss of color on the inside of the nose & mouth (mucous membranes

Causes 

The most significant difference between hypopigmentation and vitiligo is the causes. Hypopigmentation occurs on its own or with other skin disorders, infections, or injuries. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder.

What Causes Hypopigmentation? 

There are various causes of hypopigmentation. It may be present at birth or develop later in life.

Types of Hypopigmentation

Generalized: Widespread reduction in melanin pigmentation all over the body

Localized: Single or multiple depigmented patches on one area or multiple areas on the skin

Causes of hypopigmentation include:

What Causes Vitiligo? 

Vitiligo occurs when the immune system develops antibodies that cause melanocytes to stop functioning. The exact cause of vitiligo isn’t fully understood, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors may play a role. 

Causes of vitiligo include:

  • Genetics/family history 
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Overexposure to neurochemicals released from nerve endings in the skin that harm melanocytes

Vitiligo Triggers

People with a predisposition to vitiligo may be triggered by certain factors, including: 

  • Stress
  • Skin damage through cuts or sunburn 
  • Exposure to harsh chemicals
  • Viruses 

Diagnosis 

The diagnosis of hypopigmentation and vitiligo is straightforward. Your healthcare provider will examine your skin. They may use a device called a Wood’s lamp to look at the affected areas more closely to determine the exact cause of your symptoms and provide a diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider may ask about:

  • Family history of vitiligo 
  • Personal or family history of thyroid disease and autoimmune conditions
  • Previous injuries in the affected area 

They may ask about additional symptoms to determine the root cause of hypopigmentation. For example, if you’re peeing more frequently and often feel thirsty, this may point to diabetes, which is linked to hypopigmentation.

Additional tests, such as blood tests for thyroid disease, glucose levels, and vitamin B12 levels, are used to check for hypopigmentation-associated conditions. A skin biopsy may be performed to check for skin infections and skin cancer. A biopsy can also help diagnose a type of vitiligo called inflammatory vitiligo.

Treatment

Once your healthcare provider has diagnosed you, they will work with you to develop an appropriate treatment plan. An accurate diagnosis is important because treatments vary depending on the cause. 

How Is Hypopigmentation Treated? 

Hypopigmentation treatment depends on several factors, including your overall health, the area of skin affected, and the underlying cause. In some cases, such as when a burn or injury causes a lack of color, the hypopigmentation may resolve as the skin heals and does not require treatment.

If hypopigmentation treatment is needed or you’d like to be proactive about reducing the appearance of white spots and patches, treatment options include:

When underlying health conditions cause hypopigmentation, it may improve or resolve when the condition is treated. 

How Is Vitiligo Treated? 

There is no cure for vitiligo, but treatments are available to add color to depigmented patches of skin and slow the progression of the disease.

If you opt for treatment, your healthcare provider will consider various factors when developing a treatment plan, including:

  • Age
  • Skin type
  • Extent and location of depigmentation
  • Impact of vitiligo on self-esteem and quality of life

Vitiligo treatment options include:

Prevention 

Predicting the development of hypopigmentation and vitiligo is challenging. Various factors contribute to the onset of lighter patches of skin. There are things you can do to lessen the severity of hypopigmentation and vitiligo, including: 

  • Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun
  • Avoid artificial tanning beds
  • Apply sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) before going outdoors 
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats when outdoors 

Summary

Hypopigmentation and vitiligo cause light patches of skin. The key difference is that hypopigmentation is associated with health conditions and injuries that may cause skin discoloration in spots or patches.

In contrast, vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder that destroys melanocyte cells in your body that give your skin color, causing white patches to form. Treatment is unnecessary, but some people prefer a proactive approach and try treatments to reduce the appearance of lighter-colored skin patches to slow the progression of vitiligo. 

A Word From Verywell

Hypopigmentation and vitiligo are generally not harmful to the body. Many people with these conditions experience emotional distress and feel self-conscious about changes to their appearance. A skin specialist, like a dermatologist, can help you manage the condition. Connecting with people with hypopigmentation or vitiligo can provide a sense of community and make you feel less alone.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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