Causes and symptoms
A variety of health conditions and factors can cause white spots to develop on different parts of the body.
You are reading: What are these white spots on my skin?
Common causes of white spots on the skin include:
Sunspots, or guttate hypomelanosis
Sunspots are white spots where skin pigment has been lost.
These spots usually cause no symptoms, are 1–3 millimeters (mm) in size, and tend to appear first on the legs before progressing to the arms, upper back, and face.
Researchers are not sure what causes sunspots. Causes might include a lack of a skin pigment called melanin. Sunspots also seem to run in families. They are more likely to appear after the age of 40 years.
However, they are harmless, and treating them is a cosmetic issue.
While overexposure to the sun without protection can contribute to the risk of skin cancer, sunspots in themselves do not suggest the development of cancer.
Tinea versicolor, or pityriasis versicolor
In people with tinea versicolor (TV), the fungus that usually lives on the skin’s surface grows out of control.
The fungus causes dry, scaly, itchy patches that are either lighter or darker than surrounding skin. These patches usually grow fairly slowly and often cluster together.
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Sometimes, symptoms of TV may only be noticeable when a person has a suntan. The condition is widespread, and symptoms tend to become more noticeable in warm, humid environments.
Pityriasis alba (PA) is a relatively widespread, non-cancerous skin condition that causes red, scaly, itchy patches. These patches eventually heal and leave behind faint, white spots.
PA tends to develop in children between the ages of 3 and 16 and usually affects the face, but can also impact the neck, shoulders, and arms.
Researchers are not sure what causes PA, but they think it may be a mild form of atopic dermatitis or eczema.
Pigmenting pityriasis alba is a rare though potentially under-reported form of PA. It causes bluish-white scaly patches that are outlined by a patch of very light skin.
Like PA, pigmenting pityriasis alba mostly affects the face and tends to develop in children.
In people with vitiligo, white skin patches appear in places where the cells that make skin pigment, or color, have been destroyed.
Researchers are not sure what causes vitiligo. It may be an autoimmune condition, where the immune system mistakenly harms healthy cells.
White patches tend to develop in places exposed to the sun and may develop slowly or spread quickly. Vitiligo seems to run in families, and most people first notice skin discoloration in their 20s.
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Milia are firm, raised, painless, white, fluid-filled sacs, between 1–4 mm wide that develop on the surface of the skin.
Primary milia occur randomly, when keratin, a protein that helps harden the outer layer of the skin, becomes trapped under the skin and forms a fluid-filled sac.
Secondary milia develop as a result of trauma from events, such as dermabrasion, tissue damage, blistering, and skin inflammation. Secondary milia may also occur as a side effect of some medications.
Though very rare, a condition called milia en plaque causes milia surrounded by areas of raised, red, scaly, itchy skin. Milia en plaque tends to occur randomly in healthy skin and currently has no known cause.
Researchers, however, think that milia en plaque may be a sign of discoid lupus erythematosus, a long-term skin condition that causes inflamed sores and scarring on the face, scalp, and ears.
Most people with guttate hypomelanosis have fair skin and have had years of continual or excessive sun exposure.