Vitiligo and Skin Cancer: Is There a Connection?

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If you have vitiligo, odds are good that your healthcare provider has brought up the importance of skin cancer prevention. But is this something you really need to worry about? 

Vitiligo is a condition that causes your skin to lose its melanin (pigment). Lack of melanin causes blotchy white patches surrounded by your natural skin color. 

Vitiligo is believed to be an autoimmune disorder. That means your immune system destroys healthy melanin cells (melanocytes) as if they were a threat to your health, like a virus.

This article will look at what researchers have learned about the connection between vitiligo and skin cancer, how you can protect your skin, and early warning signs of skin cancer.

A Black man's hand and arm have distinct white patches from vitiligo.

Cunaplus_M.Faba / Getty Images

Vitiligo and Skin Cancer

Since the 1970s, researchers have recognized that vitiligo and skin cancer can occur together. Then they discovered that immunotherapy for melanoma (the deadliest skin cancer) sometimes leads to vitiligo.

Melanoma involves the abnormal growth of melanocytes—the same cells targeted by your immune system in vitiligo. Immunotherapy teaches your immune system to destroy melanoma cells.

But your immune system can’t always tell melanoma cells from healthy melanocytes. So, it tries to destroy all of them instead of just the cancerous ones, leading to vitiligo.

So, if cancer treatment can cause vitiligo, can vitiligo cause cancer?

Does Vitiligo Cause Skin Cancer?

It seems logical that vitiligo could open you up to a higher skin cancer risk. After all, melanin protects your skin from the sun. 

That means the unpigmented patches are especially likely to sunburn. And sun damage is known to increase your skin cancer risk.

Even so, some studies suggest the genetics of vitiligo may actually protect you from skin cancer. One study showed people with vitiligo were three times less likely to develop melanoma than those without the condition.

Does Ethnicity Play a Role?

Studies looking at ethnicity suggest that vitiligo may offer more skin cancer protection for White people than it does for people from populations with more melanin. It’s not yet clear whether this is due to the skin itself or other factors, such as cultural attitudes about the use of sunscreen.

Genetics

Vitiligo isn't a true genetic disease. But it is believed to involve a genetic predisposition. That means while it’s possible for you to develop the disease, it’s not a certainty.

Studies looking at the genetic factors that predispose you to vitiligo have found that vitiligo appears to protect you from skin cancer (and several other types of cancer, as well).

Researchers say the autoimmune processes in vitiligo could be responsible for that. A study involving genetic material from nearly 250,000 people with vitiligo and more than 1 million people without it, they concluded vitiligo lowered the risk of:

The exact nature of this protection isn’t fully understood. It may be due to autoimmune activity, the genetic makeup of people with vitiligo, or both. More work needs to be done, and it could lead to new cancer treatments.

Recap

Vitiligo causes patches of skin to lose their melanin (pigment). It's believed to be an autoimmune disease.

Skin cancer treatment may contribute to the development of vitiligo. But research shows vitiligo doesn't cause skin cancer and may even offer some protection against it and several other types of cancer, possibly due to genetics.

Protecting Your Skin

Regardless of your skin cancer risk, it’s a good idea to protect your skin. Cancer isn’t the only concern. 

Some types of skin protection may keep your vitiligo from spreading and even help you manage symptoms.

Sun Protection

By depleting melanin, vitiligo increases your risk of getting a sunburn. And a bad sunburn could make your vitiligo worse, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Some people with vitiligo find that their light patches tingle when they’re exposed to the sun. Wearing sunscreen can keep this from happening.

Experts recommend:

  • Using sunscreen every day
  • Reapplying every two hours when you’re outside
  • Reapplying more often if you’re sweating or in the water
  • Wearing protective clothing
  • Staying in the shade
  • Not using tanning beds or sunlamps

Sunscreen provides a cosmetic benefit, as well. The vitiligo patches won’t tan but the rest of your skin will. That makes the vitiligo more noticeable.

Vitamin D Benefits and Facts

Avoiding the sun can leave you without enough vitamin D. Sunlight triggers vitamin D production in your skin cells. 

This vitamin is important for everyone but might be more important when you have vitiligo. So, while you want to protect your skin, it’s not good to avoid all sun exposure.

Vitamin D may help reduce autoimmune activity. It’s also linked to the creation of melanin in your skin.

Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin D
AGE AMOUNT
0–1 400 IU (10 mcg)
1–70 600 IU (15 mcg)
70 and up 800 IU (20 mcg)
IU = International units; mcg = micrograms

Research shows vitamin D deficiency is common in people with vitiligo. And increasing vitamin D levels can even help your skin develop new pigment within vitiligo patches.

Low vitamin D is being investigated as a possible cause of vitiligo. It may also play a role in preventing the disorder.

Vitamin D3 supplements may offer protection against cancer, as well.

Vitamin D and Autoimmunity

Vitamin D deficiency may play a role in many autoimmune disorders, including:

Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should take vitamin D supplements and what the dosage should be. They may periodically test your levels in order to guide treatment.

You can also get vitamin D through your diet. Good food choices include:

  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Mushrooms
  • Milk
  • Soy, almond, and oat milk

Recap

Sunburns can make vitiligo worse, so it's important to protect your skin from too much sun. Sunscreen may help stop tingling in the white patches when you're in the sunlight.

Vitamin D is important for people with vitiligo. It may help your skin re-pigment patches. It's also protective against cancer. You can increase your vitamin D levels through sunlight, food, and supplements.

Precancerous Skin Symptoms

Many people have skin symptoms that come before cancer. If these symptoms are treated early, they may never become cancerous.

Precancerous symptoms to watch for include:

  • Rough, scaly patches in sun-exposed areas, such as the scalp, face, lip, shoulders, and hands
  • Growths that look like warts or small animal horns in frequently sun-exposed areas (called cutaneous horns)
  • Red, rough spots with irregular borders
  • Persistent open sores that don’t heal
  • Pigmented areas that look like large, raised, asymmetrical moles with irregular borders and inconsistent coloration

If you notice any of these symptoms, tell your healthcare provider right away. 

Summary

Vitiligo is believed to be an autoimmune disease in which the immune system destroys melanin (pigment). That creates white patches of skin.

Immunotherapy for skin cancer may help cause vitiligo. However, despite the increased sunburn risk, vitiligo doesn't appear to cause skin cancer. It may even protect you from cancer. That's likely due to the genetic changes that make you susceptible to vitiligo.

A Word From Verywell

The myth that vitiligo causes skin cancer is pervasive. Don’t let that cause you stress, though, as you’re probably less likely to get skin cancer. Focus instead on treating and managing your condition, which includes taking good care of your skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you pronounce "vitiligo"?

    The word "vitiligo" is pronounced vih-tuh-LYE-go.

  • Is vitiligo genetic?

    Vitiligo isn’t a genetic condition, in which your genes are the sole causal factor in developing the disease. It is believed to have a genetic component, which can predispose you to developing the condition.

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18 Sources
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