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The Difference between Vitiligo and Albinism and Why it Matters

The Difference between Vitiligo and Albinism and Why it Matters


Medically reviewed by Dr. John Harris, dermatologist and Director of the UMass Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center.

Vitiligo is a form of albinism – true or false? The answer is a resounding “false” and while both can be devastating to those who are affected, understanding the difference is key to the future of the vitiligo community.

When you’re faced with explaining vitiligo, it can be easy to relate the condition to albinism, which seems to be a more widely recognized disease. However, vitiligo and albinism are vastly different conditions and further, being able to correctly educate others about vitiligo is crucial to raising awareness for the vitiligo community at large.

The Difference between Vitiligo and Albinism

According to Dr. John Harris, Director of the University of Massachusetts Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center, the difference between vitiligo and albinism has to do with the melanocytes. What are melanocytes? Melanocytes are the cells in our bodies that product pigment, or melanin.

Vitiligo is a disease that results from the immune system killing melanocytes. As a result, there is no pigment being produced and white spots appear. At birth, your genetic makeup can make you more likely to get vitiligo, but the white spots don’t appear on your skin until a chance event occurs either internally (which is not well-understood), or externally such as a stressful triggering event.

However, albinism is present from birth and occurs because the patient inherited a faulty gene required for making melanin. It’s like a machine that’s missing a key part, so it doesn’t work. The result is the presence of melanocytes throughout the skin, but since they are unable to make pigment, the skin is completely white everywhere.

So there are three key differences: Vitiligo can appear any time after birth and albinism is always present from birth. Vitiligo comes in the form of spots or patches of white color and albinism is full coverage on the skin. And finally, vitiligo is the result of our bodies killing our melanocytes – so we have a lack of melanocytes – while albinism is the result of melanocytes not working properly. This is important because vitiligo is reversible by controlling the immune attack and helping the melanocytes grow back, whereas albinism is not, because the cells are missing a key part that allows them to function.

Why We Should Care

So why bother explaining the difference? It all comes back to awareness and the future of vitiligo. By taking the time to understand and correctly explain vitiligo, you’ll be doing your part in raising awareness for our community. The more people that know about vitiligo, the better chance we have of a decrease in bullying, an increase in research funding and ultimately, an increase in the opportunity to find a cure.

Do you understand the difference?

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