Skin Pigment Disorders Symptoms & Causes

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In-Depth

What are skin pigment disorders?

Skin color is determined by a pigment known as melanin that's made by specialized cells in the skin, called melanocytes. The amount and type of melanin determines a person's skin color.

What is the function of melanin?

Melanin gives color to the skin, hair and iris of the eyes. Levels of melanin depend on several factors, including race and hormonal changes. Melanin also protects the skin from harmful ultraviolet rays, so production increases with exposure to sunlight.

What are the different types of skin pigment disorders?

Albinism

This rare, inherited disorder is characterized by a total or partial lack of melanin in the skin, compared to the pigmentation of siblings and parents.

  • While people with albinism, called albinos, often have very light skin and hair, not all do. A common myth is that all albinos have red or pink eyes and white hair.
  • Less pigmented people with oculocutaneous albinism — albinism affecting both the skin and the eyes — often have cream-colored hair and skin. In other types with slight pigmentation, hair may look yellow or red-tinged.
  • People with ocular albinism – albinism affecting only the eyes — usually have a normal appearance or look slightly lighter than normal. They often have normal skin coloring and hair color.
  • Most people with albinism have blue eyes, and some have hazel or brown eyes. Vision can sometimes be affected.
  • There is no cure for albinism. Albinos should avoid sun exposure because they lack melanin, which is a natural protection from sunlight.
  • For more information from the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, visit http://www.albinism.org/publications/index.html.

Pigment loss after skin damage

Sometimes, following an ulcer, blister, burn or infection, the skin does not replace some of the pigment in that area. No treatment is necessary, and cosmetics can usually cover up the blemish.

Vitiligo

Vitiligo is characterized by smooth, white patches in the skin. It is caused by the loss of melanocytes, or pigment-producing skin cells. The white patches are very sensitive to the sun.

There is no cure currently available for vitiligo. Treatment may include covering smaller patches with long-lasting dyes and light-sensitive drugs, in addition to ultraviolet A light therapy.

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