Vitiligo causes skin to lose color. White patches appear on your skin, affecting the way you look. At UC Davis Dermatology, we understand the unique challenges of living with this condition. We offer the latest treatments to help you feel confident about your appearance.
What is vitiligo?
This chronic skin disorder occurs when the skin loses the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. White skin patches can show up anywhere on your body, including your face, inside of the mouth and genitals. Your hair may also turn white. Vitiligo is not contagious or life-threatening.
What causes vitiligo?
An autoimmune disease causes your body’s immune system to mistakenly attack pigment-producing skin cells. You may be more likely to develop vitiligo if you have:
- Family history: The condition can be inherited. Our genomic medicine counselors can help you understand this risk.
- Autoimmune disease: People who have one of these autoimmune diseases are more prone to vitiligo:
- Alopecia (hair loss)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Thyroid disease
Why choose UC Davis for vitiligo care
How you feel about your appearance matters. We get that. While most dermatologists are familiar with vitiligo, we have a unique focus on helping people affected by this condition. Your care includes:
- Specialty vitiligo clinic: Our Vitiligo Clinic is one of approximately a dozen nationwide exclusively focused on vitiligo. We have two vitiligo experts: Victor Huang, M.D., and Oma Agbai, M.D.. These board-certified dermatologists have advanced training and experience treating vitiligo and other skin disorders.
- Quality hospital care: Surgical treatments for vitiligo take place on an outpatient basis, meaning you go home the same day. You receive local anesthesia to numb the treatment area. Complications are extremely rare. If a problem develops, you have the benefit of being at UC Davis Medical Center. S. News & World Report rates our hospital as the best in Sacramento and among the top 10 in California.
- New therapies: You may be able to try promising new therapies through our involvement in dermatology research and clinical trials. Our physicians are dedicated to finding better ways to treat vitiligo.
- Care for all ages: Vitiligo often develops before you turn 21 and can show up during childhood. We provide care for children and adults who have the disorder.
- Patient registry: We maintain a national registry that documents the effectiveness of vitiligo treatments. Physicians at UC Davis and across the country use this registry to customize the best treatment plan for each person’s unique situation.
Our vitiligo partners
People with vitiligo often have other autoimmune diseases. Vitiligo also increases the risk of hearing or vision loss. Our team of board-certified dermatologists partner with other UC Davis physicians to meet all your healthcare needs. You may receive additional care from specialists in:
- Audiology (hearing)
- Endocrinology (diabetes and thyroid diseases)
- Hair Disorders Clinic (alopecia or hair loss)
- Ophthalmology (vision)
- Rheumatology-Dermatology Clinic (rheumatoid arthritis)
Our vitiligo treatments
Skin conditions are unique, and people respond to treatments differently. While there isn’t a cure for vitiligo, treatments can even out skin tone and restore skin color. We customize a treatment plan that works for you.
Our vitiligo treatments include:
- Topical and systemic medications
- Excimer laser therapy
- Phototherapy (light therapy)
- Miniature punch grafting
Topical medications (applied directly to the skin) may bring back skin color when vitiligo first appears. These ointments are most effective on small patches of skin on the face and neck.
Systemic medications taken orally or intravenously can slow or stop rapidly progressing vitiligo.
- Corticosteroid creams
- Immunosuppressants containing tacrolimus or pimecrolimus (calcineurin inhibitors) to suppress an overactive immune system
- Systemic oral steroids
Excimer laser therapy
Our physicians use an excimer laser system to direct a highly focused beam of ultraviolet (UV) light onto targeted areas of skin. While most private practices don’t offer this advanced technology, our status as a large medical center gives you access to it.
Benefits of excimer laser therapy include:
- More precise laser beam focus than phototherapy (light therapy), which exposes the entire body to UV light
- Minimal UV light exposure to healthy skin, which lowers the risk of skin cancer and premature aging
- Up to 70% of people see improvements in skin color after receiving twice-weekly treatments over a period of six months
Phototherapy (light therapy)
This treatment involves whole-body exposure to UV light while you sit or stand in a phototherapy booth. We are phototherapy experts. As a large medical center, we have the advanced technology and expertise to offer this treatment.
- You may need twice-weekly sessions for a couple of months or up to one year.
- Your physician may combine this treatment with oral or topical medications, such as psoralen (a light-absorbing chemical) or corticosteroids.
Miniature punch grafting (MPG)
MPG involves removing healthy circles of skin tissue from the buttocks or thighs. Doctors then transfer, or graft, the pigmented tissue onto white skin patches. The grafted area will resemble surrounding healthy pigmented skin. MPT moves tissue only (not skin cells), so the process does not stimulate pigment production like MKTP.
During this outpatient procedure, your physician:
- Numbs the skin with local anesthesia
- Uses a device to remove small circular plugs of healthy, pigmented tissue
- Uses the same device to remove small circular plugs of skin in the vitiligo area
- Grafts the healthy skin tissue into the vitiligo patch with dissolvable stitches
Depigmentation is often a last resort because it is permanent and extensive. Your physician may recommend this treatment if white vitiligo skin patches cover a significant portion of your body and other treatments do not work.
- The process involves applying a cream every day to remove color-producing pigment to even skin tones.
- Over time, treated skin blends with vitiligo patches.
- It may take up to a year to achieve the desired effect.