Causes of vitiligo 

Vitiligo is caused by the lack of a skin pigment called melanin.

Melanin, which is produced by skin cells called melanocytes, gives your skin its colour.

If you have vitiligo, you do not have enough working melanocytes, so not enough melanin is produced in your skin. This causes white patches to develop on your skin or hair. It's not clear exactly why the melanocytes disappear from the affected areas of skin.

The causes of non-segmental and segmental vitiligo may be slightly different (read about the symptoms of vitiligo for more information about these types).

Autoimmune conditions

Non-segmental vitiligo, the most common type of vitiligo, is thought to be an autoimmune condition. This means that your immune system (the body’s natural defence system) does not work properly.

Instead of attacking foreign cells, such as viruses, your immune system attacks your body’s own healthy cells and tissue.

If you have non-segmental vitiligo, your immune system destroys the melanocyte skin cells that make melanin.

Vitiligo is associated with other autoimmune conditions, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).


Segmental vitiligo, the less common type of vitiligo, is thought to be caused by chemicals released from the nerve endings in your skin. These chemicals are poisonous to the melanocyte skin cells.

Increased risk

You may be at higher risk of developing non-segmental vitiligo if:

  • someone in your family has it  around 20% of people with vitiligo know another family member who has it 
  • you have a family history of other autoimmune conditions – for example, one of your parents has pernicious anaemia (an autoimmune condition that affects your stomach)
  • you have another autoimmune condition 
  • you have melanoma (a type of skin cancer) or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (a type of cancer of the lymphatic system) 
  • you have particular changes in your genes that are known to be linked to non-segmental vitiligo


It's possible that the vitiligo may be triggered by particular events, for example:

  • stressful events – such as childbirth
  • damage to your skin – such as severe sunburn or cuts (this is known as the Koebner response)
  • exposure to certain chemicals – for example, at work

Vitiligo is not caused by an infection and you cannot catch it from someone else who has the condition.

Page last reviewed: 03/10/2014

Next review due: 03/10/2016