Winnie Harlow has garnered attention for not only her striking beauty, but also her confidence when it comes to living with the little-known auto-immune disease, vitiligo.
The Canadian-born model, whose birth name is Chantelle Brown-Young, dominates headlines every time she posts a photo showing her patchwork-colored skin.
Still, living with the condition hasn’t always been a positive for Harlow, as she has said in interviews. She was bullied for the way she looked; school peers called her cruel nicknames such as “cow” and “zebra.” The bullying was so bad, she said, that she wanted to be homeschooled.
Harlow is the most recent celebrity to embrace her skin’s tonal differences. Michael Jackson was another celebrity who had the disease, though he only discussed it publicly a few times.
Vitiligo (pronounced vit-uh-lie-go) is an auto-immune disease that causes the skin to lose its natural color given from melanocytes. Essentially, the body attacks these color-producing cells.
With the condition, patches of lighter skin appear. Vitiligo’s severity can range widely, as some people develop only a few patches, while others lose much of their skin color. It can affect any part of your body – sections of hair can turn white, people lose color inside their mouths, or even an eye can lose some of its color.
It is estimated that at least 50 million people worldwide, or 1 percent of the world’s population, live with vitiligo, but the number is likely far greater because the disease is under reported.
Can you explain how a dermatologist diagnoses vitiligo?
KM: Vitiligo is typically diagnosed clinically by a dermatologist. Often time we can tell visually, and sometimes we use what’s called a Wood’s lamp to help confirm the diagnosis if needed. It is rare for us to need to biopsy the skin for diagnosis. The number of lesions is not an indicator of this diagnosis.
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease, and sometimes these diseases travel in packs, so to speak. Is this true with vitiligo? That if you have it, you’re more likely to have other autoimmune diseases (currently or later on)?
KM: It is true that if someone has vitiligo, they are at higher risk for other autoimmune conditions than someone who does not have it. The most common associations, if any, are autoimmune thyroid diseases.
Can you talk about other potential ramifications of vitiligo?
KM: There can be major social ramifications such as in your story above. Vitiligo can impact self-esteem, particularly when in more visible areas. Social acceptance can be very difficult with skin diseases overall, since they can be easily seen and maybe not well-understood. People can fear or react poorly to what they don’t understand. Some patients also do very well with camouflage, and there are makeups that can do a wonderful job. It is always important to discuss these issues with patients.
Are there concerns about going in the sun?
KM: Patches of vitiligo do not contain any melanin, which is our natural defense against the sun’s UV rays. Thus these areas do not have any natural protection against sunburn and need to be protected vigilantly with sunscreen and/or clothing. Burning an area of vitiligo could also make the condition worse, as this is a type of trauma, and vitiligo can worsen at areas of trauma.
Are there any treatments on the horizon that might cure vitiligo in the future?
KM: There is active research to find a cure. For now, most commonly, we use modalities such a light therapy, laser and topical medications to help repigment the skin. There are procedures that can also be used, albeit less commonly. There are newer systemic medications, what we call JAK-1 inhibitors, that may be used for this and other autoimmune conditions, but it is not clear that these will be considered cures, rather ways to control or treat areas over time.