Is Vitiligo Painful?

Vitiligo is a common type of skin pigmentation disorder. It is caused by depigmentation, or a loss of pigment in the skin, which leads to characteristic white patches on the skin.

Such changes in the physical appearance of the skin cannot be felt. Vitiligo is not painful, but the white patches may be more sensitive to sunlight and more likely to burn.

This article will discuss vitiligo symptoms, including whether the condition is painful, plus how sun sensitivity can develop in some people with vitiligo and treatment options.

Women researching vitiligo

SolStock / Getty Images

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a type of skin pigmentation disorder where parts of the skin lose their color, resulting in white patches. If there is hair in those white patches, it might also turn white. Vitiligo is the most common type of skin pigmentation disorder; it affects 0.5%–2% of the population worldwide.

Vitiligo is caused by the destruction of melanocytes, a type of skin cell. This results in white patches because the melanocytes are responsible for producing melanin, a chemical that gives skin pigmentation. In vitiligo, the body’s immune system attacks the melanocytes, which classifies the condition as an autoimmune disorder. And genetics may play a role—about 30% of vitiligo cases run in families.

Even though the colorless patches can show up in more than one area of the body, it’s important to note that this is not due to the condition spreading. Vitiligo is not contagious. It is caused by misfirings of the immune system on the inside of the body.

Types of Vitiligo

For some people with vitiligo, the condition is active, where white patches continue to develop as time goes on, while for others, the condition is stable and after a certain amount of time, no new patches come up. There are four types of vitiligo:

  • Non-segmental, which has six subtypes:
  • Generalized, the most common type, where the white patches (aka macules) show up in different parts of the body
  • Trichome, which is like a spectrum, with the start being white, then lightly colored, then normal skin color
  • Mucosal, where the mucous membranes of the mouth and/or genitals are affected
  • Focal, which, as it sounds, is in a focused area, and does not spread into a pattern within a couple of years; this type is rare
  • Universal, where more than 80% of the body does not contain pigment; this is also a rare type
  • Rare variants, which include hypochromic vitiligo, follicular vitiligo, and leukoderma punctata
  • Segmental, where it appears on only one area or side of the body
  • Mixed, a combination of both non-segmental and segmental vitiligo
  • Unclassified, such as isolated mucosal vitiligo that remains the same over time

Is Vitiligo Painful?

Vitiligo is not painful. Even though it is an autoimmune condition, you can't feel the immune system attacking the melanocytes that give skin its pigmentation. You also won't feel anything as the color diminishes from the skin. Studies suggest that vitiligo also does not change how sensitive the affected areas of the skin are.

However, because of the lack of pigmentation due to a loss of melanin, the white patches are more susceptible to sunburn. And sunburn can be painful. Thus, sunscreen is a must for those patches (and skin in general) when exposed to the sun. Sun-protective clothing like long sleeves, pants, or gloves is also helpful.

While not painful, some people with vitiligo have said that they get itchy skin sometimes, and that could even be before the white patches start showing up.

How Is Vitiligo Treated?

While there is no cure for vitiligo, it can be treated. Since vitiligo causes differences in skin tone in certain areas of the body, the goal of treatment is to camouflage that difference. Treatments may include:

  • Camouflage therapy, which involves hiding the differences in skin color
  • Repigmentation, where the goal is to bring color back to the skin
  • Depigmentation, where there is such a significant amount of depigmentation already, such as in universal vitiligo, that it’s more efficient to remove the remaining pigment from the skin
  • UV light therapy, to stop the white patches from spreading
  • Surgery, such as with skin grafts taken from an unaffected area of the body to cover the white patches

Of all these treatments, camouflage is the least invasive. In this case, the name of the game is uniformity. For example, makeup can be used to cover up the colorless areas to match the skin tone of the unaffected areas. If there is hair in the colorless patch and is therefore white, hair dyes are an option. 

While treatment is cosmetic in nature—that is, to disguise the white patches so that they better match the person’s usual skin color— it is not purely superficial. Vitiligo can significantly impact someone’s self-esteem and may even affect their social interactions, due to impeccably high beauty standards that hold even skin tone in the highest regard.

Consequently, even though vitiligo isn’t physically painful, it can be mentally painful for the person living with it. Counseling may be able to help, in addition to, or in place of, physical treatments.

Summary

Vitiligo is a common skin pigmentation disorder that causes some areas of the skin to have white patches due to a lack of pigment. It is caused by melanocytes being destroyed, but that can’t be felt. Vitiligo is not painful and can be treated.

A Word From Verywell

Vitiligo is not physically painful. It feels no different than skin that has pigment. The only thing that might make it painful is that the white patches are more easily sunburned. Sunscreen is always a good idea if your skin is exposed to the sun, but having these depigmented, melanin-less patches makes sun protection even more necessary.

Even if vitiligo isn’t physically painful, as we can all probably attest to, having a physical feature outside “the norm” can cause mental hardship. In other words, just because vitiligo doesn’t hurt on the outside, doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause deeper pain. Counseling and physical treatments may help repair lost self-esteem, but we can all do a little more to make superficial differences something to take at face value—a mere difference, nothing more.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you pronounce vitiligo?

    Vitiligo is pronounced vit-il-EYE-go.

  • How fast does vitiligo spread?

    Most of the time, vitiligo starts as a few white patches, usually on the hands, forearms, feet, or face, and then gradually spreads to other areas of the body. This can happen over several months. In some cases, bigger patches continue to grow and spread across the skin, but typically they just stay in the same spot.

  • How is vitiligo diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of vitiligo is pretty straightforward. It can be seen with the naked eye. A healthcare professional will make the diagnosis based on the presence of white patches with noticeable boundaries in a certain pattern and part of the body. A noninvasive skin biopsy can show that melanocytes are indeed not present, resulting in the visible lack of pigmentation.

4 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.
  1. Bergqvist C, Ezzedine K. Vitiligo: a review. Dermatology. 2020;236(6):571-592. doi:10.1159/000506103

  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Is vitiligo a medical condition?

  3. Baykal Selçuk L, Katkat E, Aksu Arıca D, Yaylı S, Bahadır S. Sun-protection habits and knowledge of patients with vitiligoActa Dermatovenerol Alp Pannonica Adriat. 2020;29(1):7-10.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Skin pigment disorders

By Emily Brown, MPH
Emily is a health communication consultant, writer, and editor at EVR Creative, specializing in public health research and health promotion. With a scientific background and a passion for creative writing, her work illustrates the value of evidence-based information and creativity in advancing public health.