Lighter or white patches on the skin are relatively common. While some may be cause for concern, most, especially those that aren't accompanied by other symptoms, are not. Even people without a history of skin conditions can experience white skin patches caused by dead skin cells or proteins trapped just under the top layer of skin. Depigmentation or color loss -- a loss of melanin -- can also cause this symptom.
Mild eczema shows up as itchy patches on the skin that are lighter in color than the surrounding areas. Although eczema generally looks like a scaly red rash, it can also present as pityriasis alba -- white itchy patches. Contact with an allergen can cause these itchy patches, as can a cold, dry winter. Many people with this condition notice itchier and more frequent white patches in the winter months.
Avoiding harsh soaps and detergents, especially laundry soap with added scents or perfumes, can ease eczema. Excessive handwashing can aggravate the condition and increase dryness. To treat itchiness, individuals can apply over-the-counter anti-itch creams as needed. Eczema isn't contagious and doesn't develop complications, but it can be uncomfortable. People should take care to keep the fingernails short, as dirt from under the nails can come into contact with the skin when scratching, leading to infection.
A superficial yeast infection on the skin, or tinea versicolor, is another common cause of white patches on the skin. Causes include excessive sweating, especially in the summer months, as well as swimming in certain types of water. These fungal infections result in loss of pigmentation in the skin that can last as long as several months. They rarely cause serious illness but may recur. A physician or healthcare professional can determine for certain whether white patches are a yeast or fungal infection by performing a potassium hydroxide (KOH) examination from scrapings of the patches.
olenagorbenko / Getty Images
Doctors can prescribe antibiotics to treat superficial yeast infections. Other treatments include antifungal creams or ointments. Certain anti-dandruff shampoos, applied to the skin on a weekly basis in the shower, can help prevent yeast cultures and infections. Those who live in humid, tropical places or exercise frequently can reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks by showering immediately after exercising and after sweating for a long period.
Outbreaks of psoriasis may include white patches on the skin. Psoriasis is similar to eczema, in that both present as a scaly rash, but the causes, and therefore the treatments, are different. Psoriasis white patches often resemble pale scales. This autoimmune skin condition can lead to larger patches during flare-ups. An overabundance of skin cells causes psoriasis, which requires medical attention for treatment.
While psoriasis has no cure, treatments can reduce the size and severity of outbreaks. A physician may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or suggest a diet rich in foods with antioxidant properties. Other treatments include special creams and lotions, and "light-based" treatments using ultraviolet light targeted at areas of inflammation and rash. Take care when removing the scales, as excessive sloughing may cause bleeding, infection, and painful skin.
Sasha_Suzi / Getty Images
Vitiligo is a chronic skin condition that causes loss of skin pigmentation in patches, resulting in lighter or white areas. It occurs when the cells that produce melanin stop functioning, and is thought to be hereditary. Vitiligo can occur on the hair, skin, or eyes. Occasionally, trauma to the scalp can kill the melanin-producing hair follicles, resulting in white patches or streaks in the hair.
piccerella / Getty Images
Vitiligo is not contagious. Some people with the autoimmune disorder experience flare-ups with that cause the lighter patches to get larger. To prevent these flare-ups, a physician may recommend anti-inflammatory medication and a change in diet. Prescription creams may reduce the appearance of the white patches and encourage new, melanin-producing cells to form. PUVA or lightbox treatment can do the same.
andreonegin / Getty Images
Xerosis is the medical term for chronic dry skin. This condition can be hereditary or a natural effect of aging. Severe cases of xerosis can be very uncomfortable, presenting as large, itchy white patches on the limbs and torso. Lack of moisture in the skin leads to xerosis, and those with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2, may also experience outbreaks of patchy dry skin. The skin may feel tight and rough, become itchy, and flake off in small patches.
A dermatologist may prescribe topical lotions and creams designed to help the skin retain moisture in the deeper layers. Dietary changes, including drinking plenty of water, are also helpful. Those who live in areas with dry -- and especially cold -- air may find relief with a humidifier at night. Skin care products rich in ceramide and urea will also help the skin's lipid layers naturally retain more moisture.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.