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What is the difference between vitiligo and albinism?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Both vitiligo and albinism are medical conditions in which the skin has too little of the pigment melanin. Albinism is an inherited condition caused by a genetic mutation. Symptoms of albinism -- having little or no pigment in the skin, hair, and/or eyes -- are usually present at birth. In albinism, pigment cells called melanocytes are present but do not function correctly. In contrast, in vitiligo the melanocytes die for reasons that are not completely clear, possibly due to an immune system malfunction that kills them off. People with vitiligo are usually born with normal pigmentation in their skin and hair, but over time, as the melanocytes die, their skin takes on a patchy appearance as areas of unpigmented skin appear. Some people may also experience whitening of some of their hair. About half of people with vitiligo develop symptoms before age 21, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The two conditions are treated differently. In vitiligo, the pigment loss can often be camouflaged with makeup, and repigmentation with light therapy is often an option. But with albinism, because the lack of pigment usually affects the whole body, it is difficult to cover it up. The only way to manage it is to protect the skin and eyes from sunlight. Consult your doctor to learn more about albinism and vitiligo.

People are born with albinism, while vitiligo develops over time (usually before the age of 40). As well, people with albinism have little to no pigment in all of their skin, and their disorder directly affects their eyes; people with vitiligo start life with normal pigment in their skin and only lose pigment in certain patchy areas. Although both albinism and vitiligo have genetic links, scientists are not yet sure if other factors, such as emotional or physical stress, sunburn, or autoimmune disorders play a part in the development of vitiligo. Lastly, some kinds of albinism lead to other health issues, such as lowered immunity, while vitiligo usually only directly affects the skin and potentially the eyes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.