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What is tinea versicolor?

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If you’ve noticed lighter or darker spots on your skin — along with some itching and flaking — you could have tinea versicolor, a fungal skin infection that flares up in the summer.
Written by Marcy Lovitch
Updated on July 1, 2022

Summer is in full swing, which means tank tops, sundresses, shorts and more exposed skin. The last thing you want to put a damper on your warm-weather fun? A fungal infection that causes patches of discolored skin.

Hot and sunny weather creates the perfect environment for tinea versicolor to thrive. Also called pityriasis versicolor, it’s a common fungal infection. In fact, it affects up to 40% of people who live in humid climates, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The infection affects the normal pigmentation of your skin. And it causes lighter or darker patches to show up on the top layer of skin. The most common places to notice it are on your shoulders, back and upper chest.

Here’s what you need to know about this fungal infection and how it’s treated. Remember: Use your free prescription discount card any time you go to the pharmacy. You don’t want to miss out on potential savings.

Why does tinea versicolor occur?

It happens when a certain yeast that naturally lives on your skin grows out of control. It’s not entirely clear why some people get it and others don’t. But several factors may trigger the overgrowth. These include:

  • Oily skin
  • A weakened immune system
  • Hormonal changes
  • Sweating
  • Sun exposure
  • Hotter weather

“The rash seems to flare up in hotter, humid weather,” says Charles Crutchfield III, MD. Dr. Crutchfield is a board-certified dermatologist and a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He’s also the medical director of Crutchfield Dermatology in Eagan, Minnesota. “That’s because the yeast grows faster when things are damp and warm, just like when you’re making bread,” he adds.

Who gets tinea versicolor?

People of any skin color can get the infection. Those with darker skin may see lighter patches. Fairer-skinned people may get lighter or darker spots. Tinea versicolor is more common in:

  • Teens and young adults, whose oil glands are more active
  • Pregnant women dealing with shifting hormones
  • People who take corticosteroids
  • People with diabetes
  • Those who have a family history of the rash

The good news is that the condition isn’t contagious. You can’t get it from someone else or pass it on to others. That’s because tinea versicolor is related to risk factors that cause the yeast to grow. It’s not about being exposed to the yeast itself.

What are the symptoms of tinea versicolor?

People develop a fine scale over patches of skin, says Cynthia Bailey, MD. Dr. Bailey is a board-certified dermatologist in Sebastopol, California, and founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care. The patches are a different color than one’s baseline skin tone. They can be white, tan or pink-hued. And they’re usually on the trunk, neck, upper arms and even the upper thighs. Other areas where the spots can appear include the chest, back and shoulders.

“The 3 most common symptoms are discoloration, flaking and itching,” says Dr. Crutchfield. The American Academy of Dermatology says the spots can also be dry and become more noticeable if you get a tan. As the yeast grows, smaller spots may join and form large patches, covering more areas of your skin.

Tinea versicolor can sometimes be mistaken for vitiligo. It’s a condition that causes loss of skin coloration. But vitiligo is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the body may attack the skin’s pigment-producing cells. And unlike tinea versicolor, vitiligo’s cause remains unknown.

How does your doctor diagnose it?

Recognizing the rash isn’t difficult for most doctors. “We can tell it’s tinea versicolor just by looking at it,” says Dr. Bailey. “That’s because it has a pretty characteristic appearance and distribution on the skin.” However, she says, it’s still helpful to confirm the diagnosis with a simple, painless skin scraping. The sample is then examined under a microscope.

Your dermatologist may also use a device called a Wood’s lamp. The lamp is held about 4 or 5 inches from the affected area. If you have tinea versicolor, the skin will appear yellowish green in color.

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How is tinea versicolor treated?

Many of the treatments are applied to your skin. They may be over-the-counter creams, gels, shampoos and foams. Or they could be oral and topical prescription products. “Typically, we start with topical treatments,” says Dr. Bailey. Examples include medicated shampoos and body washes, and anti-yeast creams or sprays.

Dr. Crutchfield prefers to use a topical prescription medication combined with an oral prescription. “The combination of an anti-fungal and an anti-yeast medication works very, very well,” he says.

Commonly prescribed anti-fungal and anti-yeast medications come as creams, gels and foams. Examples are ciclopirox (Loprox®), naftifine (Naftin®), ketoconazole (Ketodan®, Extina®, Xolegel®) and econazole (Ecoza®). Doctors may also prescribe oral anti-fungal medications. Examples include fluconazole (Diflucan®) and itraconazole (Onmel®, Sporanox®).

If you’re prescribed a medication to treat tinea versicolor, show your pharmacist this free prescription discount card. It could save you up to 80% on your medications.

Do you really need to go to a doctor for tinea versicolor?

The condition isn’t dangerous. But it’s best not to ignore it entirely. “Tinea versicolor can spread and cause cracks and fissures if the skin is left untreated for a long time,” says Dr. Crutchfield. And this can lead to additional infections.

Perhaps the most important reason for treating the condition? It often returns. “Recurrence is likely because it’s a normal skin yeast,” says Dr. Bailey. “So treatment and prevention are important.”

If you’ve had tinea versicolor, you can take simple steps to keep it at bay. This includes washing your skin promptly after sweating and using a wash that treats the yeast, recommends Dr. Bailey. You can also apply a dandruff shampoo containing selenium sulfide to your skin. Leave it on for 10 minutes and then wash it off to help treat the fungus. She suggests performing this regimen daily for 1 to 2 weeks and once a month after that.

You can also help stave off a repeat infection by avoiding the main risk factors. Think: excessive sweating, sunlight exposure and heat. And don’t forget to wear sunscreen. Opt for loose-fitting cotton clothing to reduce perspiration, too.

Keep in mind that it can take a while before the discoloration disappears. “Once the yeast is treated, it takes weeks to months for the skin color to normalize,” says Dr. Bailey. But take heart. With treatment, people can fully recover without permanent scarring or skin color changes.

Additional sources
How common is tinea versicolor: Cleveland Clinic
Symptoms of tinea versicolor: American Academy of Dermatology