“Many people don’t know that make up is often a “mask” that allows vitiligo suffers to break free from the disease.”
On 25 June, the world celebrates World Vitiligo Day, bringing together thousands of people to raise awareness about the long-term skin condition. Vitiligo causes white patches to develop on your skin due to the lack of the melanin chemical and the patches usually remain permanently, with no way to determine how much skin will be affected. Although the patches can form any area of skin, it typically forms on areas that have been exposed to the sun.
25 June isn’t officially recognised as World Vitiligo Day by the United Nations, however, an ongoing campaign to get the day registered has gathered more than 50,000 signatures. Here, 21-year-old Emma Matthews, a fashion and beauty journalist from the United Kingdom, writes for the IPF about living with vitiligo.
At age 12 I was diagnosed with vitiligo. Patches of my skin and hair started rapidly turning white and I was thrown into a world of unanswered questions and low self-esteem.
Little is known about the condition. But according to the NHS, it’s believed to be linked to the immune system. My body destroys it’s own melanocytes and as a result cannot produce melanin, the crucial pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes their colour.
Surprisingly, it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
Approximately, one in 100 people have the condition in the UK and half of those people, like me, will be diagnosed before 20.
Unfortunately, my diagnosis wasn’t as straightforward as I would have liked. Initially, my vitiligo only affected my eyebrows and eyelashes. Due to the fact it hadn’t spread to my skin at the time, it took three different GPs before I was finally referred to a consultant dermatologist.
The biggest challenges many people face when it comes to vitiligo is the fact there’s “no cure”. Those who have had the condition would have heard those words time and time again and although the disease isn’t life threatening, it does massively knock your confidence to the point where many of us develop anxiety and depression.
When I was growing up, I would constantly get looked at or asked ignorant questions like “What happened to your face?”
It seems nothing now, but appearance and image plays such a big part in your teenage years. In my school in particular, there was always a need to look a certain way. Rather than express my own unique quirks or traits, it was about following the crowd. Kids who didn’t wear a certain type of jacket or had the right pair of trainers for P.E. would get the mick taken out of them, let alone a person who suffered from a skin condition.
When I was a little bit older, I began to experiment with makeup. It’s wasn’t an easy process and there are probably a fair few dodgy looking photos out there where it looks like I have two thick slugs on my face, as opposed to actual eyebrows.
But one thing makeup did teach me was the importance of accepting the condition and embracing it.
As I practised more with cosmetics, I began to get better at it and after years of trial and error. I’m now at the point where I could successful camouflage my vitiligo if I wanted to. Of course, when I tell people this, I’m usually met with scepticism. People assume it’s unhealthy that I’m trying to conceal my condition with cosmetics. They tell me that I should embrace who I am and how I look, as opposed to hiding behind a mask.
What many people don’t know is that make up is often a “mask” that allows vitiligo suffers to break free from the disease. Whether it’s using steroid cream, PUVA or simply makeup, by using methods that affect how visible the pigment loss is, it makes the condition seem like less of a burden and something that can be controlled or managed.
In addition to these methods, there’s also the help and support of organisations like the British Skin Foundation. Earlier this year, they approached me for an interview about vitiligo. Although I was sceptical at first, as I’ve rarely spoken out about it before, by plucking up the courage to talk about it I’ve received emails from individuals who are going through the same thing. This boosted my confidence as I began to learn how to talk openly about my condition and share tips and stories with other people.
Alongside raising money for all types of skin disease research, the foundation also helps sufferers with the vast information on their website. Before I was put in contact with them, I only knew a few basic facts about vitiligo. But since using their resources to learn more about it, I was encouraged to seek out even more material from organisations such as the Vitiligo Society.
Now nine years later, I’m beginning to realise that, sure, vitiligo might not be curable, but it is manageable.