What is vitiligo?

Dr. Marc-André Doré

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Model Winnie Harlow, famous for being a contestant on America's Next Top Model, recently walked the New York Fashion Week runway, makeup-free. Her choice garnered much press. With enthusiastic audience applause, Winnie proudly sported large, light patches of discoloration on her face, arms and legs. Winnie suffers from a skin condition called vitiligo. Michael Jackson suffered from the same condition.

Learn more about vitiligo

Vitiligo is a skin condition where pigmentation skin cells are destroyed by the body. A person with vitiligo will have light, discolored patches on their skin. The cells may be concentrated in one area, or in Winnie's case, throughout the body. The cause of vitiligo is still unknown, but doctors link the condition to an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack and destroy the pigment cells of the skin.

The majority of patients are diagnosed with the condition at an early age. Vitiligo is often hereditary, but there have been cases where the condition was triggered by thyroid dysfunction. In rare instances, some patients have reported that the onset of vitiligo began shortly after an extreme stress incident or sunburn. There is currently no cure for vitiligo.

While the skin condition is not painful physically, people with vitiligo suffer from emotional stress and pain. The unusual discoloration is often pronounced and people may stare, comment and in severe cases, bully a person suffering from the disorder. There are 3 options for vitiligo patients: attempt treatment to mitigate the discoloration, cover the discoloration with clothing or makeup, or in the case of Winnie Harlow, accept the condition and stop hiding it.


For small areas of discoloration, the most commonly prescribed medication is a highly concentrated, topical corticosteroid. Almost half of patients will see results and a restoration of color to the affected area in 4 - 6 months. The use of corticosteroid must be monitored by a doctor. Potential side effects include hyper-sensitive skin.

Laser treatment is effective on up to 70 percent of facial discoloration cases. This option can be combined with the topical corticosteroid medication. Results from laser treatment are not permanent. Pigmentation may begin to fade after a year, therefore laser treatments may need repetition.

There are other treatment options including holistic nutrition, vitamin therapies and light therapy, as well as higher risk surgery.


Covering discoloration with cosmetics can be an effective, but temporary option. There are several cosmetics designed exclusively for vitiligo patients. Foundations and cover-ups are usually thicker and more opaque than ordinary cosmetics, in order to effectively cover the lighter patches. 

The top line of cosmetics for vitiligo is Dermablend. Created by an American dermatologist in 1981, the cosmetics are hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic. The formulations are heavy enough to camouflage discolorations without clogging pores or creating sensitive skin reactions.

Baring it all!

The final option for living with vitiligo is to embrace it. Having been bullied as a child and called "cow" and "zebra", Winnie decided to embrace her unique beauty with a positive, fearless outlook. Quoted as saying, "People have black skin, people have brown skin, I have both," Winnie is an ambassador for acceptance and diversity. Look for her unique beauty in an ever-growing list of fashion campaigns and magazine ads.

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