How Model Winnie Harlow Is Changing People's Perception of Vitiligo

Amy Lawrenson

According to ChangeFaces.org, 220,000 people in Britain deal with skin conditions like psoriasis, vitiligo and acne. Each of these conditions can knock a person's confidence. Winnie Harlow knows that better than most. She wasn't born with vitiligo but developed the condition at the age of 4. Growing up, some children stopped being friends with her, she says. "I confronted them, they said their mothers had warned them to stay away, because they might catch my skin condition," Harlow told Cosmopolitan. Kids can be cruel, and adults can be ignorant. Growing up in Greater Toronto, Harlow would get called a cow and people would moo at her. She was beaten up and she eventually moved schools.

But today Harlow is a successful model, having been on the cover of magazines like Glamour, Elle, Wonderland and Hunger and through her Instagram account (she has 2.5 million followers), she is helping build awareness for her skin condition. One of her recent posts went viral. Proudly standing in front of a mirror in just a thong, she captioned the image: "The real difference isn't my skin. It's the fact that I don't find my beauty in the opinions of others. I'm beautiful because I know it. Celebrate your unique beauty today (& everyday)!" 

We called on dermatologist Alexis Granite, MD, Mallucci London, to share with us what vitiligo is, so we can spread awareness too. Keep scrolling to find out more.

What is vitiligo?

"Vitiligo is a chronic skin disease in which the skin loses colour (pigment​). Hair, ​eyes, and the inside of the mouth can also be affected. Vitiligo affects both males and females and is found in individuals of all ethnicities, although it may be more noticeable in those with darker skin types," says Granite.

What causes Vitiligo?

"While the exact cause of vitiligo is unknown, it is believed it is an autoimmune skin condition," says Granite. "Pigment producing cells called melanocytes in affected patches of skin are destroyed by immune cells, thus leading to a loss of pigment. Patients with vitiligo are at higher risk of other autoimmune conditions such as thyroid disease, diabetes and alopecia areata."

In Harlow's piece in Cosmopolitan, she reveals that her skin is sensitive to extreme temperatures. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with vitiligo can have an increased risk of the following:

  • Social or psychological distress
  • Sunburn and skin cancer
  • Eye problems, such as inflammation of the iris (iritis)
  • Hearing loss

Vitiligo can also affect people differently. Generalised vitiligo is where patches develop all over the body; segmental vitiligo is where the patches appear on just one side or part of the body, and then there is local vitiligo, which only shows up in one part of the body.

It's worth noting that vitiligo is similar but not the same as piebaldism. Where vitiligo patches can evolve and change over time, piebaldism patches remain static. Also, in 80% to 90% of piebaldism cases the person will have a patch in the front and centre of their forehead. Gorgeous model Rebecca Heckard has this patch.

 

A post shared by R:ROGUE (@rebeccaheckard) on

Is vitiligo genetic?

"Vitiligo is hereditary in roughly one-third of all cases," reveals Granite. "Approximately one in 100 people is affected by vitiligo (1% of the world's population). Your risk of vitiligo increases to one in 20 if you have an affected parent or sibling."

Can the vitiligo spread over time? 

"There is no cure for vitiligo. The clinical course is variable, but many patients do experience a progressive loss of pigment over time. There are treatment options available for vitiligo that may help with re-pigmentation, these include topical creams, UV therapy, and surgical transplantation of healthy melanocytes," says Granite.

Harlow recently returned to the middle school where she was bullied. "Looking back, I can see that the students who bullied me were just like me, trying to fit in. I talked to the students about having confidence and lifting each other up," she said.

Now as an adult, Harlow feels comfortable in her own skin. "I didn't have a problem with myself or my skin. I had a problem with the way people treated me because of my skin. They tried to define me. I had to relearn how to love myself by forgetting the opinions of everyone else and focusing on my opinion of myself."

Next up, the best treatments for acne.

Opening Images: @winnieharlow

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