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What is Depigmentation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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Depigmentation is a skin condition where the skin loses color and becomes more pale, in contrast with hyperpigmentation, where the skin darkens. There are a number of reasons people can develop depigmentation, ranging from congenital issues like albinism to temporary conditions like tinea versicolor. Management of depigmentation is available through a dermatologist, and can include a variety of options depending on the underlying cause.

This condition can be classified on the basis of whether it is localized or systemic. In localized cases, a specific patch of skin or area is affected and the rest of the skin is intact. People with dark skin may find this condition especially troubling because it will be so evident, since the pale patches will stand out starkly against their skin. Systemic conditions involve widespread depigmentation across the body. Depending on the cause, it can be temporary or permanent in nature.

Vitiligo, where the melanocytes no longer function normally, is a common example of depigmentation. This condition can cause mottling, splotching, and streaking, as some melanocytes remain intact while others die off. The hands are often affected, making it highly visible unless a patient has pale skin naturally or can wear gloves without attracting attention.

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Skin without any pigmentation is at risk of sun damage. Patients who have depigmentation disorders are usually advised to use strong sunscreen, as well as protections like hats and long sleeves to keep their skin healthy. The surrounding skin can be lightened with a cream to make the contrast less visible and people can also darken the pale skin with makeup to reduce the appearance of a color difference. If the condition is treatable, a dermatologist can provide appropriate treatment, and the difference in coloration should resolve.

Depigmentation is not dangerous as long as patients protect the exposed skin from sun damage, but it can cause anxiety and social discomfort because of its high level of visibility. Patients sometimes attract unwanted attention in public and people may be reluctant to touch them, thinking the condition is contagious. People who experience distress because of variations in their skin pigmentation may find concealing garments helpful and sometimes receive benefits by attending psychotherapy and support groups where they have an opportunity to discuss their distress and develop coping techniques.

When people notice changes in their skin pigmentation, either darkening or lightening, and there is not an obvious cause like prolonged sun exposure, they should see a dermatologist for evaluation. The condition may be treatable, or it may be a sign of an underlying condition that could pose a health risk to the patient.

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