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Common Misconceptions

Those of us who have the more common piebald white forelock, (as opposed to the type one might get from Vitiligo or Waardenburg Syndrome), have probably got some large unpigmented areas splotched across our legs, frontal trunk and inside or back of arms. The unknowing observer has often asked me if those areas were burns. You can hardly blame them; after all, itís not seen all that often. "No, it just sunburns a lot. Thereís no pigment in those areas of my skin, hence the white skin and white hair there."

"Does it hurt?"
Only when sunburned or pinched like any other skin.

"Is it contagious?"
No, itís congenital. That means itís an inherited trait. One of your parents has to have it to pass it along to you. If you end up having it, you can pass it along to your children.

"Then do all your brothers and sisters have it too?"
Not necessarily. It could happen, but usually not. It seems to be about a coin toss as to whether it will pass along or not. In the family I grew up, out of us four kids, two have it and two donít. Neither of my two kids have it.

"Oh, I know someone with skin like that. He called it Vitiligo."
Iíve heard that one a couple of times. Once from my last dermatologist, who should know better. What my relatives and I have is not Vitiligo. While Vitiligo also tends to run in families, the spotting develops over time and is not as patterned or uniform. It is caused by an entirely different source.

"Iíve heard girls are more likely to have the white forelock."
Possibly, but from what Iíve seen looking back over generations, that could be sheer coincidence. Reinforcing that illusion, many of the men who had a white forelock lose it as the hairline recedes. So even though the piebald skin remains, the former whitelock is now invisible. So in a large family group picture, you would probably see more whitelocks on females than males. I would have to see the trend over many generations and families before I would believe that to be true. Everything I've read says it is an autosomal genetic trait. Autosomal means it is not connected to any of the chromosomes that determine sex, so both males and females can possess the trait.

"Will tanning beds or lotions help to darken the skin?"
No, there is no pigment in those areas. A person has to have the pigments in their skin cell in order for them to tan. Lotions with a dye could color the skin temporarily like makeup, but it all washes off eventually. The skin cells without the pigment will only grow more cells without pigment. It is all controlled at the gene level in the cellís DNA.

"So could a change in diet or vitamin supplements do anything?"
I couldnít empirically state that nothing will change the genes back to produce pigments, but letís just say that there is no known remedy. It is unlikely to see any change in this condition without bioengineering at the gene level. Science is closer to that every day, but, so far, I see no big push by the biomedical community to put in the time and money necessary to develop a gene therapy for this condition. Maybe if we join together and least get a rough idea of how many of us are out there, who knows what the future holds?

"Someone told me piebald people go deaf."
They were probably referring to Waardenburg Syndrome. Many who suffer from it also have poliosis (a white forelock) as one of itís many and severe symptoms. Many who suffer from it also go deaf. It is caused by a different gene mutation than the one that causes our piebald forelock. I do not know in the Waardenburg patient if the rest of the skin is pigmented in the typical pattern we experience (legs, chest, arms, throat and forehead), or if they just have the forelock. To summarize, unless your forelock is caused by Waardenburg Syndrome, you have no greater risk than the general population of going deaf.

"Iíve been told that this was a trait of royalty."
Iíve heard that one too, but can offer nothing yet to prove or disprove it. Coincidence again? There have been citings of piebaldism clear back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, so I suppose somewhere along the line there could be royalty involved.


Copyright 2006 Mike Reilly.