Do you have white spots or patches on your skin? From harmless pigmentation problems to fungal infections and even skin cancer, a range of conditions may be responsible for these. Look out for conditions such as tinea versicolor, idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis, pityriasis alba, lichen sclerosus, actinic keratosis, keratosis pilaris, and melanoma.
A clear complexion doesn’t just make you look good but is also a barometer of your health. So, what does it mean if you have white spots or splotches on your skin? A wide range of conditions from sun damage and common fungal infections to more serious diseases may be responsible for this loss of pigmentation. Here’s a look at 8 potential causes:
1. Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis
This skin condition causes white flat spots which are about 2 to 5 mm in size. These spots are typically found on the shin and parts of the forearm exposed to the sun; but the neck, face, or shoulders, which also get sun exposure, can also be vulnerable. It’s not clear what causes idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis. Experts speculate that they could be a kind of white freckle caused by sun damage or even aging.
What to do: Idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis is a harmless condition and doesn’t require treatment. You can, however, use cosmetics, topical steroid creams, or localized dermabrasion to improve appearance. And always take care to protect yourself from the sun.1
2. Pityriasis Alba
Pityriasis alba is a harmless skin condition common in young adults and children. It begins as oval or round patches of pink rough skin which fades to a pale color. These patches usually develop on the chin, cheeks, and skin surrounding the mouth but may also be seen on the legs, arms, or trunk. The patches may be dry or mildly itchy. They tend to be more noticeable after being exposed to the sun as they don’t tan normally. This kind of inflammation of the skin is thought to be related to eczema, although it has been observed in people who don’t have a history of eczema.
What to do: This condition typically resolves on its own and the skin color returns to normal. But it can persist for some years and may go and come during this time. Using a moisturizer can help if the patches are dry. You can also use a steroid cream if they are itchy or red. Remember to use a sunscreen with a high SPF of at least 30 when you go out into the sun.2
3. Keratosis Pilaris
Keratosis pilaris is a harmless skin condition which causes rough, small, red or white acne-like bumps or patches on your skin. The bumps are usually found on the chest, thighs, and upper arms, though they may also appear on the face sometimes. If there’s irritation or itching, they may become inflamed and red and lead to scarring. This condition is caused by the accumulation of a protein known as keratin found in the skin. Excess keratin may clog skin pores or hair follicles to form the hard, small bumps characteristic of this condition. Keratosis pilaris typically affects adolescents and children and the symptoms usually get better and completely resolve when they grow older.
What to do: Avoid scratching the bumps and steer clear of skin products with harsh chemicals which can dry out your skin. Soothing moisturizers may also be helpful. While medicated creams can help break down and remove excess keratin, these may irritate the skin and may not be suitable for children.3
Vitiligo is a skin disorder where you get white patches on your skin. It’s caused by a deficiency of melanin, a pigment in your skin which gives it color. Although it can develop anywhere on your skin, it usually occurs on the hands, neck, skin creases, and around your eyes and mouth. Vitiligo starts off as a pale patch that slowly becomes completely white. Sometimes, these patches can be itchy and their edges can be inflamed, red, or brownish. Vitiligo may also occur at your hair roots and turn your hair gray or white.
It’s not completely clear why the skin doesn’t produce enough melanin in people with vitiligo but experts peg it down to neurochemicals that are toxic to cells which make melanin or an autoimmune reaction which destroys them. Skin damage such as is caused by cuts or sunburn, exposure to certain chemicals, and stressful events such as childbirth may trigger this condition in some.
What to do: Phototherapy and medication may help restore skin color. But the effect is usually temporary as the white patches caused by this condition tend to be permanent. Do remember to use a strong sunscreen on white patches caused by vitiligo as they tend to be more vulnerable to the harmful rays of the sun.4
5. Tinea Versicolor
Tinea versicolor is a skin infection caused by a fungus called malassezia. This fungus lives on our skin normally. But certain factors like excessive sweating, humid and hot weather, oily skin, or a compromised immune system can lead to an overgrowth and cause tinea versicolor.
Spots on your skin are often the first indication of this condition. They can be darker or lighter than your normal skin and may be white, salmon, pink, tan, red, or brown in color. They may also be scaly, dry, or itchy. These spots tend to be more noticeable when you get a tan since the fungus stops affected parts from tanning. You may also find that the spots grow together to form patches of darker or lighter skin. This skin condition could disappear during winter, only to return when the weather becomes humid and warm.
What to do: Oral as well as topical antifungal medications are available to treat Tinea versicolor. Since the fungus that causes this condition is also associated with dandruff, applying an antidandruff shampoo with ketoconazole or selenium sulfide for about 10 minutes in the shower can also be helpful.5 6 Natural remedies like honey7 or diluted tea tree oil 8 that are effective for dandruff may work too.
6. Lichen Sclerosus
Lichen sclerosus is a chronic skin disorder that usually affects the anal and genital areas. It can also, sometimes, develop on your breasts, upper arms, shoulders and back. This condition is mostly seen in women though men or children may also be affected in some instances. Early on in the condition, small, white, shiny, smooth spots develop on the skin. Later, they grow into bigger patches which have crinkled thin skin. This skin tends to tear easily and you might then get purple or red bruises and scarred skin. Other symptoms of this condition are itching, pain or discomfort, bleeding, and blisters. An overactive immune systems or hormones may play a role in causing this condition.
What to do: Patches on your upper body or arms typically resolve on their own and don’t need treatment. But if the skin on your genitals is affected, scarring can result in problems with sex or urination. Steroid creams can be used to deal with the symptoms of lichen sclerosus. In some cases, surgery may also be advised. For instance, surgery that widens the vaginal opening may be recommended for some women while the foreskin may be surgically removed in some men. Skin scarred by this condition has a higher risk of developing skin cancer. So make sure you regularly check for any changes in your skin such as sore, blisters, lumps, thickening of your skin etc. It is also be a good idea to go for a medical check up between 6 months to a year.9 10
7. Actinic Keratosis
Actinic keratosis is a condition that causes a small, raised, rough area on skin. This condition is caused by sun exposure and usually develops on the back of your hands, face, chest, or other areas that are often open to the sun. It starts as a flat area with a yellow or white scale that’s crusty on top. These growths may also be pink, red, gray, or the color of your skin and may become gritty, rough, hard, and wart like. This condition is more common in people with fair skin, green or blue eyes, or red or blond hair. You also have a higher risk of developing it if you’ve had an organ transplant or take medication to suppress your immune system.
There’s a slight risk that actinic keratoses could turn into squamous cell skin cancer if they’re not treated. Research indicates that people who have several patches have a 10% chance of developing cancer within a decade of developing this condition. If a patch starts growing quickly, bleeding, or hurting, it could be a sign that it has turned cancerous.11
What to do: It’s a good idea to get any scaly rough spots that you develop checked out by a doctor to rule out cancer. Your doctor may recommend removing these growths by freezing them, scrapping them away, burning them off, or cutting them away. Prescription creams may also be used for treatment. Always remember to protect yourself from the sun by using a sunscreen.12
8. Skin Cancer
In rare cases, a serious kind of skin cancer known as melanoma can also cause white patches on your skin. One of the first signs of this cancer is often a change in the shape, feel, size, or color of a mole. You may find that the mole is asymmetrical, has an uneven color and border, and the edges are often blurred or ragged. A new mole may also be an indication of melanoma. Most melanomas have a blue black or black area where it looks like pigment has spread into the surrounding skin. But sometimes, areas or patches of white, red, gray, or pink may also be present.
What to do: Surgery is usually used to treat melanoma. Protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful rays may lower your chances of getting this condition.1314
Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.