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Shinjita Das

, MD, Harvard Medical School

Last full review/revision Jan 2021| Content last modified Jan 2021

Albinism is a rare hereditary disorder in which little or none of the skin pigment melanin is formed. The skin, hair, and eyes, or sometimes just the eyes, are affected.

  • Typically, the hair and skin are white and the eyes may be pink or pale blue-gray.
  • Doctors usually diagnose albinism by examining the skin and eyes.
  • There is no cure, but people with albinism should protect themselves from sunlight to prevent sunburn and reduce risk of skin cancer.

(See also Overview of Skin Pigment.)

Albinism is a disorder of skin pigmentation that occurs in people of all races and throughout the world. It is caused by several rare genetic disorders that, in addition to causing hypopigmentation (an abnormally low amount of melanin) or depigmentation (complete loss of pigment) of the skin, also affect the eyes with decreased vision, misalignment of the eyes (strabismus), and involuntary eye movements (nystagmus).

A type of albinism, called ocular albinism, affects the eyes but usually not the skin and hair. Another type of albinism occurs with bleeding disorders.

Symptoms of Albinism

Albinism is easily recognized by its typical appearance, including white hair, pale or white skin, and pink or pale blue-gray eyes. People's eyes are very sensitive to light and they often try to avoid bright light.

People who have less typical types of albinism may have some color to their skin, their hair may be somewhat red, and/or their eyes may be blue or brown.

Because melanin protects the skin from the sun, people with albinism are very prone to sunburn and skin cancer (especially squamous cell carcinoma). Even a few minutes of bright sunlight can cause serious sunburn.

Diagnosis of Albinism

  • A doctor's examination

Doctors base the diagnosis of albinism on an examination of the skin and eyes.

Treatment of Albinism

  • Sun protection
  • For strabismus, surgery

No treatment reverses albinism. People with the disorder must take steps to prevent sunburn and decrease their risk of skin cancer, including doing the following:

  • Staying out of direct sunlight
  • Wearing sunglasses with ultraviolet (UV) protection
  • Wearing sun-protective clothing with a rated ultraviolet protection factor (UPF)
  • Applying sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB light with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 50 or higher

Did You Know...

  • Albinism occurs in people of all races.

The degree to which clothing, even when it covers the body, protects against UV light varies. Generally, the tighter the weave and the heavier the weight, the more protection a fabric provides. Clothing can also be treated with a substance that temporarily increases its UPF. UPF clothing has become more comfortable and easier to find at most sporting goods stores and many other retailers.

Doctors can correct strabismus with a surgical procedure.

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