White spots are a relatively common skin issue and are usually nothing to worry about. They may appear as small white bumps that protrude slightly from the surface of the skin around the eyes and mouth, or white lumps or growths on the hands, feet, or other parts of the body. You might also experience larger, flat areas of skin which are lighter than your natural skin colour. Below we outline the possible different causes of white spots, and how they may be treated.
WHAT CAUSES WHITE SPOTS?
There are a few different skin conditions which may cause white spots on the face and body. Some common causes include:
- Pityriasis alba
- Tinea versicolour
- Idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis
- Warts and verrucae
The symptoms of white spots will vary depending on the skin condition causing them. Some forms of white spots have no symptoms, whilst others may cause itching or discomfort. Here are some of the most common causes of white spots on the skin and the symptoms associated with them:
A milium (the plural is, 'milia') is a small white or yellowish raised bump or spot on the skin, normally found around the eye area and cheeks, but can appear anywhere on the face or body. It is very common to have several milia appear in clusters, and they are very common in newborn babies often being referred to as, 'milk spots'. Unlike a pimple or spot, milia feel quite hard, almost like a small piece of grit under the skin, and do not have any redness or inflammation as you might expect with whiteheads or acne related spots. Milia are not contagious. There are many types of milia but the causes of them aren't always clear.
Neonatal milia or 'milk spots' are milia found on newborn babies. It is thought they are caused by sweat glands that haven't fully developed yet.
Primary milia can appear on children or adults. They can disappear without treatment but they tend to last longer in adults and can often be permanent.
These occur in areas after injury or trauma. It is thought that this is due to damage caused to the sweat glands in that area. These can also be a result of using certain types of creams.
Milia en plaque
This is a rarer type of milia that develops on a raised and inflamed patch of skin called a 'plaque'.
Multiple eruptive milia
Another rare type of milia where clusters of milia appear over the course of a few weeks or months. This type of milia most commonly appears on the face, upper arms and upper half of the torso.
How to get rid of milia
There are three main methods of removing milia. A dermatologist will be able to advise you on the most appropriate milia removal treatment for you:
Once the skin with milia has been cleaned, a sterile needle is used to create a tiny incision in the skin and the contents of the milia are carefully extracted.
This method of milia removal involves cauterising the skin covering the milia using tiny electrical pulses, which then allows the contents to be extracted.
It may be more suitable to be prescribed a topical medication to treat the milia, but this is only for certain types of milia where physical extraction is not suitable.
WHITEHEADS AND ACNE
Blocked and congested pores can appear as white spots or bumps on the skin and are often referred to as whiteheads. These are not harmful and occur when the pores become blocked with debris, such as dead skin cells and excess oil. Whiteheads are a mild form of acne and are easily treatable my adopting a skincare regime using products for oily skin types. Regular exfoliation can help to keep blocked pores and whiteheads at bay.
This rare skin condition is caused by a loss of pigmentation or melanin in the skin. It appears as patches of skin which are lighter in colour than your natural skin tone and can occur all over the body, including the face, arms, legs, back, genitals, hands and feet.
A doctor will be able to advise whether your vitiligo requires treatment. Common treatments for vitiligo include medication, light therapy and surgical skin grafts in some cases. Vitiligo is not contagious.
Pityriasis alba is a condition which is most common among children and younger adults. It appears as oval or circular patches of lighter skin or white spots on the face and body. The exact cause of pityriasis alba is not known, but it is understood to be related to eczema and other forms of dermatitis.
White spots caused by pityriasis alba usually fade after a few months, but can remain for up to three years in some cases. The condition can be treated with moisturisers and steroid creams and is not contagious. A doctor, dermatologist or pharmacist will be able to give you advice on the best course of treatment.
TINEA VERSICOLOUR/PITYRIASIS VERSICOLOUR
Pityriasis versicolor, or tinea versicolour as it is sometimes known, is caused by a form of yeast called malassezia. The presence of this yeast is normal and it is found on the skin of 90% of adults. It usually doesn’t cause any skin problems.
Pityriasis versicolor/tinea versicolour develops when the yeast begins to multiply more than usual and causes an imbalance in the skin. This results in white spots or patches of lighter-coloured skin which may be scaly, red and inflamed. It is not contagious, as malassezia yeast is present in most people anyway.
The condition can be treated with antifungal creams and other topical treatments, and also by taking oral medication prescribed by your doctor. It may take several weeks of treatment for the white spots to fade, but your skin should return to its normal colour.
IDIOPATHIC GUTTATE HYPOMELANOSIS
Idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis is a non-contagious skin condition which causes small, flat white spots or patches to appear on the surface of the skin. It is most common in fair skin types and is believed to be caused by sun exposure and ageing skin.
There are no symptoms other than the white spots themselves (it’s not an itchy or uncomfortable condition) and it most often occurs on the areas of the body which have the most exposure to the sun, such as the face, legs and arms.
The white spots associated with idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis appear due to a decrease in the amount of melanin (pigment) in the skin. The causes of this are not certain, but it is believed there may be a genetic link.
WARTS AND VERRUCAE
Warts are benign (non-cancerous) skin growths, most commonly found on the hands and feet. They are caused by viruses (there are around 60 known wart-causing viruses in existence). Warts are highly contagious as the affected skin cells release the viruses, so hygiene is of the utmost importance if you are affected.
Veruccae only tend to appear on the feet. They are flat and thick in appearance, hard around the edge and have a small black dot in the centre. Often, they feel sore when touched or stood upon. Verrucae are highly contagious and are frequently passed on via swimming pools due to people walking barefoot.
There are over-the-counter wart and verruca treatments available from most chemists. If you find these are not successful, you may wish to speak to a dermatologist about having them removed professionally.
Professional wart and verruca removal treatments include:
- Laser removal
- Surgical excision