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What is Vitiligo? - The Causes

We have some idea of what is happening in vitiligo, but are less clear about what the causes are. We know that pigment cells are not functioning properly in the white patches, although some of them survive, both in the skin and in the hair follicles in the white patches.  There are a number of theories to explain the loss of pigment;  the most popular is the ‘autoimmune’ theory which suggests that the body’s own immune system is attacking the pigment cells.

The causes of vitiligo are not completely understood yet, but they seem to be a mixture of genetic and environmental factors.  People with a particular combination of genes are more likely than others to develop vitiligo, but it is not only due to heredity.  The development of vitiligo may be triggered by such factors as:

  • Hormonal changes in the body, for example during adolescence.
  • Damage to the skin, for example from a cut or sunburn.
  • Extreme stress.
  • Contact with certain chemicals.  

These factors could also play an important role in the development and progression of vitiligo.

Chemicals which can trigger vitiligo

Products which contain phenol (also known as carbolic acid or phenic acid) are possible triggers for vitiligo.  These products include:

  • adhesives                                                                   
  • deodorants
  • disinfectants
  • duplicating paper
  • germicidal detergents
  • insecticides
  • latex gloves
  • paints
  • photographic chemicals
  • printing inks
  • soap antioxidents
  • synthetic oils
  • varnish and lacquer resins