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Tinea Versicolor: How to Recognize (& Treat!) This Common Skin Infection

There are lots of different types of spots that can pop up on your skin, from pimples to moles. Some of them, like blackheads and whiteheads, go away in their own time, but others, like moles, stick around forever. If you notice itchy splotches that are white, pink, brown, or red, you could have an infection known as tinea versicolor.

Although you may not have heard the name before, tinea versicolor is actually pretty common — and luckily, it’s easy to treat. Keep reading for all the deets on tinea versicolor, from what it looks like to what the treatment options are.

What is tinea versicolor?

Tinea versicolor (a.k.a. pityriasis versicolor) is fungal infection of the skin. Here’s how it happens: Everyone has yeast hanging out on their skin. If those yeast grow out of control, it can lead to the rash known as tinea versicolor. Yeast is a type of fungus, and tinea versicolor is specifically caused by a fungus called Malassezia. (Sounds like a name right out of Game of Thrones, doesn’t it?) Although tinea versicolor can be bothersome (or possibly embarrassing for some), it’s important to know that it’s a benign condition (meaning it’s not harmful) and doesn’t affect your overall health.  

Who gets tinea versicolor?

If you have oily skin, sweat a lot, live somewhere super-hot and humid, or have a weakened immune system, you’re more likely to get tinea versicolor, as these factors can make it easier for those pesky yeast to go crazy on your skin. While you can get tinea versicolor at any age, it’s most common in teens and young adults — which makes sense, since all those hormonal changes you experience as a teen cause your oil glands to kick into overdrive.

What does tinea versicolor look and feel like?

Tinea versicolor typically looks like circle- or oval-shaped patches or spots that are white, pink, red, or brown. These patches can be lighter or darker than the surrounding skin. These patches will most frequently rear their ugly heads on your neck, chest, back, and arms, and they won’t tan the way that the rest of your skin does. So while the skin around these patches will get darker after you’re out in the sun, the patches themselves won’t. You might notice that your tinea versicolor patches say sayonara during colder weather and return from vacation when it’s hot and humid out. These patches can be dry, scaly and itchy, but the good news is they typically aren’t painful.

How is tinea versicolor diagnosed?

If you spot what you think is tinea versicolor on your skin and you’re experiencing any discomfort (namely itchiness), book an appointment with your dermatologist. To diagnose the infection, your doc will perform a simple biopsy by taking a sample of your skin from the affected area by scraping it and will examine the sample under a microscope.

Watch Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) perform a biopsy on tinea versicolor at her practice in Upland, California!

How is tinea versicolor treated?

The good news is, if you find out that you do indeed have tinea versicolor, it’s easily treatable. One of the most popular treatment options is topical anti-fungals — these can come in the form of creams, lotions, shampoos, soaps, or foams. They contain ingredients such as selenium sulfide, zinc pyrithione, or miconazole that help keep yeast growth in check. Oftentimes you can get these products over the counter (OTC), but in some cases you could need an prescription.

If you have a more serious case of tinea versicolor — or the infection keeps coming back — then you may need to take anti-fungal pills. Pills will clear up the infection faster than topicals, but they come with their own set of side effects, so talk to your derm first to determine what treatment plan is best for you.

Keep in mind that while your treatment will clear up the underlying infection — meaning the scaliness and discomfort will go away — but it could be a few months (or longer!) before your skin discoloration disappears. Make sure you’re wearing SPF regularly to prevent the area from getting darker.

Putting on Sunscreen

How else can you manage tinea versicolor?

Have tinea versicolor that keeps coming back? This can definitely be frustrating, but unfortunately, it’s not shocking. That’s because ttinea versicolor tends to be what dermatologists call a relapsing condition. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent it, and those involve making a few simple changes to your everyday routine.

For starters, steer clear of using any skin care products that’ll make your skin oily (look for oil-free formulas). There’s a possibility that direct sunlight could make tinea versicolor worse, so limit your exposure. And if you are going outside, make sure to use an oil-free sunscreen. Finally, to curb excess sweating (which can trigger tinea versicolor), avoid tight clothing and wear loose, breathable items made with cotton.

When you do see tinea versicolor appear on your skin, make sure you’re washing the affected area with a zinc or selenium sulfide shampoo (both are available OTC) several times a week.

Dr. Ashley Steffens, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.

1 Comment
  1. Hi –
    (WARNING: SLIGHT GRAPHICS CONCERNING RAPE)
    PLEASE NOTE: The following information is NOT a “cry for help.” Rather, I simply want to make it known that TINEA VERSICOLOR can result from oral sex (specifically, done to a female), as well as from rape by a female, as yes, this DOES occur, and is more common than one may think… This is my story:
    **************************************************
    I first noticed this skin condition last summer, as it appeared on my face (primarily), forearms, and then spread to my upper arms. I was born with Type A Dermatitis (eczema), so the initial thought was that it stemmed from my inherent condition. Incidentally, I began using an all-natural black African soap again, as I had used in the past and it really helped with some excessive itching. The tinea versicolor cleared right up (however, unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t aware that the soap is what did the trick.🤔? Anyhoo…☺️) I am very sensitive about this present occurrence in my life. I rarely comment about it; however, I am a rape victim; and my tinea versicolor originated from being raped – beginning last summer – not only by a male, but also by a FEMALE. It was HER yeast that brought about the condition on my face, which subsequently spread to my arms. Go figure, right?🤷🏽‍♀️ As a former Certified Clinical Research Professional (CCRP), working in cancer research, I did a bit of investigating on my skin condition and concluded (based on the fact that this female’s yeast came in contact with my skin and AFTER having learned about tinea versicolor) that this may be what I have. After seeing a primary doctor, as well as my GYN, they both concluded the same diagnosis. I was then prescribed Ketoconazole and to my great relief, it is clearing up!
    ***************************************************
    As you may be wondering about the rapes, I have since been contacted by an awesome detective who is working hard to solve my rather difficult case. I have also submitted several rape kits performed by a forensic (or S.A.N.E.) RN – equally awesome – and am quite confident that soon my unknown perpetrators will be brought to justice.
    Thank you, Dr. Lee, for enlightening your readers about this somewhat ‘scary’ but totally treatable skin condition. Thank you, as well, for allowing me to give my personal experience about a very sensitive subject. I also apologize if I have offended anyone; however, this information may indeed prove to be valuable to your patients, as well as to your readers..
    Kind Regards!

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