Discoloration: Know the facts
If you discover a discolored patch of skin on your body, should you be worried? With skin cancer awareness on the rise, it's good to be vigilant, but you don't want to fret over every little mole or patch. Being informed can help you figure out what's going on and how to proceed.
First, you need to know how your skin gets its normal color. The top layer of your skin, called the epidermis, contains cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin when you're exposed to the sun. Melanin has many functions, one of which is to help block ultraviolet rays. When you tan and your skin turns brown, that's the melanin working to protect the layers of your skin.
Even though your skin (and melanin) covers your whole body, sometimes skin can be discolored in seemingly random places. It can be widespread or limited to a specific spot. Widespread discoloration is often referred to as generalized. When the discoloration appears on just one side, it's called segmental, because it's affecting only one part of your body. Focal discoloration happens when you have discoloration in one or just a few places. Also, the affected skin might be hyperpigmented (darker than normal) or hypopigmented (lighter than normal).
Skin discoloration can have many causes, ranging from cosmetic issues to more complex skin issues. The hormones estrogen and progesterone can cause a discoloration known as melasma or chloasma, particularly in women who are pregnant, taking oral contraceptives or on hormone replacement therapy. Sun exposure can cause tanning and burning, and can make existing skin conditions flare up while damaging your skin.
Skin discoloration can be caused by more complicated underlying conditions. Vitiligo is a condition in which your melanin-making cells stop working or die. The result is patches of white, colorless skin that start out small but then spread. Tinea versicolor is a fungal infection encouraged by warm, humid weather that results in small, discolored areas of skin, which can also be scaly. Increased oil production, fluctuating hormones and a weakened immune system can also help lead to the infection. Morphea results in red or purple spots that discolor your skin, leaving it thick or hard. It tends to strike women more than men, and even though the cause isn't yet certain, the immune system is believed to play a role in the discoloration. Of course, the role sun damage plays in skin cancer is commonly known. Those afflicted might notice some skin discoloration. If you notice any sudden or changing spots, you should consult a doctor.