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Why Do I Have White Spots on My Skin?

Reader Questions About Idiopathic Guttate Hypomelanosis (IGH)

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Question: I have brown skin and I’m Asian. I now live in Israel. After 13 years here, I suddenly saw white spots on seven places on my skin. Why do I have this and what is the cause of this disease?

Answer: It sounds like you might have a benign skin condition called idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis, small spots that look like depigmented freckles. It is more common in Caucasian or light skinned, middle-aged women, but can be seen in all races as a normal part of aging. As we age the body experiences a gradual reduction of melanoyctes and skin cells no longer produce pigment, a similar process that causes the graying of hair. The condition is also increasingly being seen in both sexes and darker skinned individuals with a history of long-term sun exposure, which has lead scientists to believe that excessive sun exposure and sun damage is another cause of these white spots.

Says NYC dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D. author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist: “Idiopathic gutate hypomelanosis is caused by sun damage. The sun destroys the melanocytes in the skin. Then they don't produce any more melanin or pigment. There is no treatment. Sometimes what we do is to take a skin bleach and bleach the surrounding skin to lighten it and blend the white spots into the lighter background color as camouflage. If there is a lot of sun damage and discoloration you can take a laser or IPL like the limelight and take out the sun damage. This will return the skin to its natural color, which is lighter and will help blend the white spots into the background skin.”

A note of caution: Those treatments mentioned above are not suitable for skin of color, according to certified skin care specialist Gladys T. Lewis of GTL Skincare in New York. And just because you are light-skinned does not mean that these methods will work on you.

According to an article at DermNetNZ, written by the New Zealand Dermalogical Society: "In most cases, treatment is not required as the marks are completely harmless. Attempts to destroy the lesions may leave brown marks or larger white marks, which may look worse than the original condition."

All agree that wearing sunscreen is important.

“The consensus is that there is no scientific or proven treatment for IGH," says Lewis, "however you can prevent them from occurring or getting more by using sunscreen.”

Adds Dr. Jaliman: “The best way to prevent white spots is to wear SPF 30 broad spectrum sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or avobenzone or mexoral.”

For more information on sun protection, read Sun Safety for Multicultural Women.

Make sure that you consult with a dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon or skin specialist that has experience working with people of color and will know what is appropriate for your individual skin condition and needs. In addition, hypopigmentation can be caused by other conditions. For example, tinea versicolor, a fungal infection caused by a type of yeast can occur during very humid conditions. This is harmless and can be treated. So see your doctor or dermatologist to have the spots or white skin patches checked out.

Question: I am 28 and I have noticed these spots for over five years now. I was wondering if this was a hereditary issue. Although small, they’re still noticeable.

Answer: Yes, one of the theories is that white spots, like freckles, could also be hereditary. Some people are also more susceptible to age spots because of genetic factors. If the appearance of the spots is really bothering you, you can use body makeup (Dermablend and Miracle Skin Transformer, for example) to temporarily cover them up.

Question: Please tell me whether to use sunscreen lotion over the body after being affected by idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis.

Answer: If you think that by not putting sunscreen on the affected area that you will get rid of the white spots, don’t. As mentioned above, dermatologists believe that these white age spots are caused by excessive sun exposure or excessive melanin, so to allow the areas to be exposed to UV radiation can do more harm than good. Always wear sunscreen on all exposed areas of the body.

Confused about the new FDA sunscreen regulations? Read Is Your Sunscreen Really Protecting You? for help.

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