Natural Treatment Shows Promise for Distressing Skin Condition

Vitiligo is a difficult-to-treat skin disorder in which a loss of pigment-producing cells creates white patches on various parts of the body. A review of natural treatments for vitiligo published in BMC Dermatology found that an extract of the herb Ginkgo biloba may help return the natural pigment to the skin in some people.

About 2% of people have vitiligo; half of these develop it before age 20. The most commonly affected areas are the face, arms, legs, and genitalia. Vitiligo is more obvious in dark skinned people and in lighter skinned people when sun exposure causes non-affected areas to tan. The disfigurement caused by vitiligo can lead to emotional difficulties such as depression, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

Current therapies for vitiligo

It is rare for areas affected by vitiligo to repigment on their own, and available treatments are fraught with side effects. Corticosteroid creams are sometimes used to help the pigment return to small areas, but these can cause skin to thin. Medications that increase the skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) light may be used in conjunction with controlled UV light exposure (phototherapy). However, this treatment raises the risk of skin cancer, and people with vitiligo are already at increased risk.

Natural products review

Alternative treatments have been sought after to help ease the emotional discomfort of vitiligo by aiding in skin repigmentation. The new study reviewed 15 trials of natural health products used to treat vitiligo, including the amino acid L-phenylalanine, various herbs, vitamins, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Three studies using L-phenylalanine combined with phototherapy showed “moderate evidence” of effectiveness in treating vitiligo. Three studies of Chinese medicinal herbs provided only weak evidence of usefulness, as did four trials using phototherapy in conjunction with plant extracts that increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV light. One trial using vitamin B12 and folic acid with phototherapy was not effective and another using vitamin E plus phototherapy was only mildly effective.

One study used 40 mg of Ginkgo biloba (containing 9.6 mg ginkgo flavone) three times per day for six months. Of the people treated with ginkgo, the progression of the disorder was halted in 80%, and 40% experienced complete repigmentation, compared with only 8% in the placebo group. “Ginkgo’s apparent efficacy without the need for phototherapy—thus eliminating the adverse events inherent with phototherapy—makes it a therapeutic option worth investigating,” said the review’s authors.

Common sense precautions

Because people with vitiligo are more sensitive to the harmful effects of the sun, wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ is advisable.

While ginkgo appears to be effective and was associated with only minor gastrointestinal complaints, more studies are needed before it can be recommended to everyone with vitiligo.

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND

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