Winnie Harlow Shared What It's Like Living With Vitiligo

Harlow was the first person with vitiligo to walk the runway at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

In 2018, fashion model Winnie Harlow was the first person with vitiligo to walk the runway at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. 

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), vitiligo is a skin condition that causes parts of your skin to lose color. The result is patches of skin that are lighter than others. There's no cure for vitiligo, but treatments can help bring color back to the skin. 

Since her debut at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, Warlow has made it her mission to represent people with skin conditions in the media. Here's what you need to know about vitiligo—including the causes and types of the skin condition, as well as how dermatologists treat it. 

What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes pigment-free patches of skin to appear randomly on the body. Vitiligo happens when the cells responsible for giving your skin its natural color, melanocytes, become destroyed. The result is milky white patches of skin. 

Anyone can develop vitiligo, which may appear at any age. However, vitiligo most often occurs before age 20, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Per the AAD, there are five types of vitiligo, which include:

  • Localized: This type happens when only a few spots or patches develop in one or a few parts of your skin. 
  • Generalized: With generalized vitiligo, white patches appear scattered across the skin. 
  • Universal: This is rare in which a person loses most of their natural skin color. 
  • Non-Segmental: Lighter-than-normal patches of skin slowly come and go throughout a person's life. 
  • Segmental: Also known as unilateral vitiligo, this type appears on only one side of the body, like one leg or side of the face.

The cause of vitiligo is unknown. But some experts believe it might be an autoimmune disease, meaning the immune system mistakenly attacks the melanocytes. 

How To Treat Vitiligo

Although there isn't a cure for this skin condition, some treatment options exist. 

But according to the AAD, there isn't one best treatment, and not all treatments will work for each person. A dermatologist can determine the best treatment plan based on the following factors: 

  • A person's age
  • Their overall health
  • The type of vitiligo
  • Where it appears
  • How it's progressing
  • How the condition affects the person's life

Per the AAD, some treatment options include:

  • Coverup or "camouflage" makeup
  • Medications applied to the skin to restore skin color or prevent new vitiligo patches
  • Light therapy to restore skin color
  • Skin graft surgery, which removes pigmented skin and transplants it to patchy white areas
  • Cell transplant surgery in which cells from pigmented skin are placed into the skin with vitiligo
  • Diet and supplements may replenish any lost nutrients
  • Depigmentation, which ultimately gets rid of your skin's color

However, you don't have to treat vitiligo. Like Harlow, you should not have to hide your skin condition. 

Living With Vitiligo

Living with a skin condition like vitiligo can be isolating. According to the NIH, people with vitiligo can develop low self-esteem or a poor self-image because of how their skin looks. 

But thanks to the example of people like Harlow, others can find the support needed to accept their white patches—or any other skin condition—and live life to its fullest.

Harlow has proved throughout her career that it doesn't have to hold you back from living life to the fullest.

The Toronto native made her industry debut on "America's Next Top Model" in 2014. Since then, she's walked countless runways, appeared in Beyoncé's visual album "Lemonade," and become a role model to her 10.1 million followers on Instagram. The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, however, was always her dream.

"It's the pinnacle of my career," Harlow told Vogue in a 2018 interview. "I told anyone [who] asked, 'I want Victoria's Secret!'"

She also said she wanted to use the opportunity to defy cultural beauty standards, asking the question: "Why is there a stigma around being different when we're all different?"

A Quick Review

People like Harlow show that you don't have to hide your skin if you have vitiligo or any other skin condition. 

Per the AAD, vitiligo may increase your risk of thyroid disease or alopecia (an autoimmune disease causing hair loss), and some may have hearing or vision problems. So, although you don't have to cover up your skin, you may want to consult your healthcare provider if you notice symptoms of vitiligo. 

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