Skin Discoloration Basics

Leg with Vitiligo - skin disease.
Vitiligo is a condition in which the cells that make melanin stop working or die out, causing patches of lighter skin. See more pictures of skin problems.
© Tupinamba

If you discover a discolored patch of skin on your body, should you be worried? With skin cancer awareness on the rise, it's good to be vigilant, but you don't want to fret over every little mole or patch. Being informed can help you figure out what's going on and how to proceed.

First, you need to know how your skin gets its normal color. The top layer of your skin, called the epidermis, contains cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin when you're exposed to the sun. Melanin has many functions, one of which is to help block ultraviolet rays. When you tan and your skin turns brown, that's the melanin working to protect the layers of your skin.


Even though your skin (and melanin) covers your whole body, sometimes skin can be discolored in seemingly random places. It can be widespread or limited to a specific spot. Widespread discoloration is often referred to as generalized. When the discoloration appears on just one side, it's called segmental, because it's affecting only one part of your body. Focal discoloration happens when you have discoloration in one or just a few places [source: Mayo Clinic]. Also, the affected skin might be hyperpigmented (darker than normal) or hypopigmented (lighter than normal) [source: U.S. National Library of Medicine].

If you notice your skin is discolored, whether it's generalized, segmental or focal, your next step is to consider whether you should see a doctor.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I explain the discoloration? For example, if you've recently been tanning and didn't apply your sunblock evenly, that could cause a strange discoloration and probably wouldn't be a reason to be concerned. But if you've got odd splotches that won't go away and that you can't account for, you might want to consult a doctor.
  • Is the discoloration changing? Changes in shape, size and color can be warning signs of skin cancer, so getting checked is a good idea [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

The bottom line is that if you're worried, visit your doctor. Be prepared to give your doctor information, such as when the discoloration started, how long it's been going on and whether it is spreading or changing [source: U.S. National Library of Medicine].

What can cause skin discoloration in the first place? Read on to find out.


Skin Discoloration Causes

Skin discoloration can have many causes, ranging from cosmetic issues to more complex skin issues. The hormones estrogen and progesterone can cause a discoloration known as melasma or chloasma, particularly in women who are pregnant, taking oral contraceptives or on hormone replacement therapy [source: U.S. National Library of Medicine]. Sun exposure can cause tanning and burning, and can make existing skin conditions flare up while damaging your skin.

Some medications have side effects that cause skin discoloration. They might even make you more sensitive to the sun, which can also lead to discoloration [source: U.S. National Library of Medicine]. Also, don't forget about age. Exposure to the sun over time causes age spots (also known as liver spots), which start showing up as you get older. Although these dark places can look like skin cancer, genuine age spots aren't a danger [source: Mayo Clinic].


Skin discoloration can be caused by more complicated underlying conditions. Vitiligo is a condition in which your melanin-making cells stop working or die. The result is patches of white, colorless skin that start out small but then spread [source: Mayo Clinic]. Tinea versicolor is a fungal infection encouraged by warm, humid weather that results in small, discolored areas of skin, which can also be scaly [source: Mayo Clinic]. Increased oil production, fluctuating hormones and a weakened immune system can also help lead to the infection. Morphea results in red or purple spots that discolor your skin, leaving it thick or hard [source: Mayo Clinic]. It tends to strike women more than men, and even though the cause isn't yet certain, the immune system is believed to play a role in the discoloration. Of course, the role sun damage plays in skin cancer is commonly known. Those afflicted might notice some skin discoloration. If you notice any sudden or changing spots, you should consult a doctor [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Because there are so many different causes of skin discoloration, there are also many kinds of treatments.


Skin Discoloration Treatments

How you treat your skin discoloration depends on the cause, but a variety of options are available to you.

For incurable but benign conditions, such as vitiligo, age spots and birthmarks, you can use cosmetics to help conceal any imperfections that bother you.


Depending on your skin condition, an array of medications is available, ranging from creams to oral medications. For age spots, you might be satisfied with over-the-counter bleaching creams, but with a condition such as tinea versicolor, you might need to take a prescription oral or topical antifungal medication [source: Mayo Clinic]. Talk to your doctor about whether you need a prescription or an over-the-counter remedy.

Resurfacing procedures include processes, such as chemical peels, laser surgeries and microdermabrasion, that remove surface layers of skin and allow new skin to grow. Keep in mind that some of these procedures, such as certain types of laser surgeries, can require repeated applications for results [source: American Society for Dermatologic Surgery].

Freezing a spot on the skin through cryotherapy can destroy pigment and then cause new skin to grow back, which tends to appear lighter. This treatment is often used for some types of skin cancer removal, but it also can be used for warts and age spots [source: American Academy of Dermatology, Mayo Clinic].

Surgical options are available for some skin discoloration conditions. In skin grafting, your doctor replaces a discolored section of your skin with a piece of your normal skin taken from another place on your body [source: Mayo Clinic]. However, you risk scarring and the chance that the transplant won't repigment to match. If your doctor thinks you might have skin cancer, surgical removal of the cancerous spot is an option, including curettage and electrodessication, in which the spot is scraped and burned away [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Again, talk with your doctor to find your best option.

Overall, if you have discolored skin that's worrying you, your first step is to investigate the cause. Then you can take advantage of the wide range of options available to you for treatment.

For more information, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Chemical Peeling: What to Expect Before, During, and After." AgingSkinNet. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Indoor Tanning: What You May Not Know." SkinCancerNet. Dec. 14, 2007. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Laser Skin Rejuvenation." AgingSkinNet. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin Cancer." (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. "Dermasurgical conditions and their treatments." (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. "How to choose the best doctor for dermasurgery." (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. "Trying to Become a Beauty May Turn Beastly." (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • Encyclopædia Britannica. "Melanin." (Accessed 7/31/09)
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  • Mayo Clinic. "Age Spots (Liver Spots)." March 20, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Morphea." May 6, 2008. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Tinea Versicolor." Feb. 23, 2008. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Vitiligo." April 21, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Melasma." MedlinePlus. Oct. 28, 2008. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Skin -- Abnormally Dark or Light." MedlinePlus. April 13, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Skin Color -- Patchy." MedlinePlus. July 17, 2007. (Accessed 7/31/09)
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. "Skin Discoloration -- Bluish." MedlinePlus. June 12, 2009. (Accessed 7/31/09)