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This Skin Fungus Is Super Common And You'll Probably Get It At Some Point

There's nothing fun about FUNgus.

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The summer is a glorious time.

But by the end of summer, many people notice some blotches on their chest, back, or face.

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But we're not talking about spots that can be attributed to peeling after a sunburn. We're talking about lighter (or sometimes darker) splotches that seem to just pop up out of nowhere.

This is actually a fungus called tinea versicolor, and it's caused by an overgrowth of yeast that already lives on the skin.

Don’t freak out — tinea versicolor is a harmless fungal infection and it’s one of the most common skin conditions dermatologists treat during the summer. The yeast (called malassezia) is found naturally on about 98% of people, so it’s actually a normal part of our microbial skin flora, says Dr. Camila Janniger, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and clinical professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Malassezia yeast is usually benign, but under certain conditions it can develop into a more aggressive form and grow out of control into the tinea versicolor fungus.
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Don’t freak out — tinea versicolor is a harmless fungal infection and it’s one of the most common skin conditions dermatologists treat during the summer.

The yeast (called malassezia) is found naturally on about 98% of people, so it’s actually a normal part of our microbial skin flora, says Dr. Camila Janniger, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and clinical professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Malassezia yeast is usually benign, but under certain conditions it can develop into a more aggressive form and grow out of control into the tinea versicolor fungus.

Yeast overgrowth is triggered by hot and humid weather, sweating, tight clothes, and oily skin.

Malassezia yeast is opportunistic — so it causes infections only if the skin is optimal for yeast growth or your immune system is weak. "Yeast loves warm, moist areas so it will grow when your skin stays hot and sweaty in the summer, or if you sit around in damp exercise clothes which trap moisture," says Dr. Whitney Bowe, board-certified dermatologist in New York City. The most vulnerable parts of your body are areas where sweat builds and your skin secretes more natural oils, such as the back, chest, forehead, and neck. “It’s most common in young adults and adolescents, likely from hormonal changes or increased oil secretion in the skin," says Janniger. It's also much more common among populations in tropical or subtropical climates, where it's hot and humid all year long.
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Malassezia yeast is opportunistic — so it causes infections only if the skin is optimal for yeast growth or your immune system is weak. "Yeast loves warm, moist areas so it will grow when your skin stays hot and sweaty in the summer, or if you sit around in damp exercise clothes which trap moisture," says Dr. Whitney Bowe, board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

The most vulnerable parts of your body are areas where sweat builds and your skin secretes more natural oils, such as the back, chest, forehead, and neck.

“It’s most common in young adults and adolescents, likely from hormonal changes or increased oil secretion in the skin," says Janniger. It's also much more common among populations in tropical or subtropical climates, where it's hot and humid all year long.

The yeast produces an acid that stops the skin cells underneath and around it from making melanin, or pigment.

This might sound gross, but in order for the yeast to grow on your skin, it has to feed. “The metabolic byproduct of the yeast's feeding process is a specific acid which goes into nearby skin cells and stops them from producing melanin, the pigment that gives skin color,” says Bowe. Sometimes the fungus makes skin a bit scaly or thick and dry so it appears like a rash, but it typically looks like regular skin that's lighter than normal. It can also cause darker patches of skin, though that's less common.
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This might sound gross, but in order for the yeast to grow on your skin, it has to feed.

“The metabolic byproduct of the yeast's feeding process is a specific acid which goes into nearby skin cells and stops them from producing melanin, the pigment that gives skin color,” says Bowe.

Sometimes the fungus makes skin a bit scaly or thick and dry so it appears like a rash, but it typically looks like regular skin that's lighter than normal. It can also cause darker patches of skin, though that's less common.

Wherever the fungus lives, there will be a lack of pigmentation, which is why this becomes more noticeable if your skin tends to tan during the summer.

The experts agree that tinea versicolor most often causes white or light spots on the skin, but according to the AAD the spots can also be pink, salmon, red, tan, or brown. It all depends on the individual, because everyone's skin is different. Tinea versicolor affects people of all different races and skin tones, although it tends to be more visible on darker skin tones. If the fungus isn't treated, the spots will increase in size and spread, connecting into larger patches of white or pink pigmentless skin, says Janniger. But don't panic — regardless of the size of the rash, the infection is still harmless. “Tinea versicolor isn’t contagious at all and people don’t need to worry," says Bowe. "It's more of a cosmetic issue that people fix for aesthetic reasons, because it can take months or even years for it to go away on its own."It usually goes away during the winter when it's cold and dry. But if you live in a place that's warm year-round, the fungus can be more of a persistent problem.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research / Via mayoclinic.org

The experts agree that tinea versicolor most often causes white or light spots on the skin, but according to the AAD the spots can also be pink, salmon, red, tan, or brown. It all depends on the individual, because everyone's skin is different. Tinea versicolor affects people of all different races and skin tones, although it tends to be more visible on darker skin tones.

If the fungus isn't treated, the spots will increase in size and spread, connecting into larger patches of white or pink pigmentless skin, says Janniger. But don't panic — regardless of the size of the rash, the infection is still harmless.

“Tinea versicolor isn’t contagious at all and people don’t need to worry," says Bowe. "It's more of a cosmetic issue that people fix for aesthetic reasons, because it can take months or even years for it to go away on its own."

It usually goes away during the winter when it's cold and dry. But if you live in a place that's warm year-round, the fungus can be more of a persistent problem.

People often mistake the rash for eczema, vitiligo, or sun spots — but a dermatologist can confirm it's a fungus.

All the dermatologist needs to do is gently scrape the rash and look at your skin cells under a microscope to see the malassezia yeast (pictured above). They can tell immediately if it’s tinea versicolor, says Janniger, but there’s no way of seeing the fungus with the naked eye. So even if the spots don't bother you, it's worth checking in with a dermatologist who can confirm that the pigment loss is from tinea versicolor and not a more serious skin condition.
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All the dermatologist needs to do is gently scrape the rash and look at your skin cells under a microscope to see the malassezia yeast (pictured above). They can tell immediately if it’s tinea versicolor, says Janniger, but there’s no way of seeing the fungus with the naked eye.

So even if the spots don't bother you, it's worth checking in with a dermatologist who can confirm that the pigment loss is from tinea versicolor and not a more serious skin condition.

The good news? You can easily cure it with prescription or over-the-counter anti-fungal treatments.

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Anti-fungal treatments come in pill, cream, or shampoo form. The fastest and most effective treatment is usually fluconazole pills or ketoconazole shampoo, Bowe says, which require a prescription from your dermatologist.

The pills give you an oral dose of medication, which you then sweat out through your pores. Once you sweat it out, it kills the fungal infection. "The pills kill all the yeast in 99% of cases,” says Bowe. But they do have side effects like nausea and fever, so many people opt for the shampoos or creams.

“At the drugstore you can buy Selsun Blue shampoo, which contains an anti-fungal called selenium sulfide, or clotrimazole and Lotrimin creams,” says Bowe. These over-the-counter products usually take longer to cure the rash than prescription products, but they will kill the fungus eventually.

Don't panic if your skin still looks blotchy after treatment. It can take a while for the color to even out.

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If you treat the fungus properly, you can expect it to be gone within a few weeks at most. That said, the difference in skin pigmentation will remain until your skin color evens out, which varies depending on person.

So if you tanned around the tinea versicolor, you'll have to wait until that fades. Or if you have a darker skin tone and the spots are light, those skin cells will start producing pigment again after you treat the fungus, but it may take longer for your color to even out.

It can take weeks or even months to go back to normal, but it really depends on the person, says Janniger. If you don't like how the fading spots look, try using self-tanner or makeup in the meantime.

The bad news? If you get tinea versicolor once, you'll probably get it again.

“If you have the yeast overgrowth, there’s about an 80% chance it will return within two years,” says Janniger. Tinea versicolor usually comes back each year during the summer, but it can happen more frequently if you live in a place that's warm and humid all year long.Experts aren’t sure why some people are more prone to yeast overgrowth than others who never get tinea versicolor. “It might have to do with the specific pH of their skin or the microorganisms on it, but we aren't sure,” Janniger says. It could also be more common in people who sweat a lot or have very oily skin.
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“If you have the yeast overgrowth, there’s about an 80% chance it will return within two years,” says Janniger. Tinea versicolor usually comes back each year during the summer, but it can happen more frequently if you live in a place that's warm and humid all year long.

Experts aren’t sure why some people are more prone to yeast overgrowth than others who never get tinea versicolor. “It might have to do with the specific pH of their skin or the microorganisms on it, but we aren't sure,” Janniger says. It could also be more common in people who sweat a lot or have very oily skin.

If you know you're prone to tinea versicolor, you can use anti-fungal treatments preventatively.

This means using those shampoo or cream treatments we talked about before to prevent any yeast on your skin from growing out of control. “If you think you'll get it, you should apply the anti-fungal cream or shampoo at least twice a month in the summer, especially before you expect to sweat all day,” says Janniger.
Jeroen Van Den Broek / Getty Images / Via thinkstockphotos.com

This means using those shampoo or cream treatments we talked about before to prevent any yeast on your skin from growing out of control. “If you think you'll get it, you should apply the anti-fungal cream or shampoo at least twice a month in the summer, especially before you expect to sweat all day,” says Janniger.

It's also important to keep your skin dry and your immune system strong.

Certain behaviors can help prevent tinea versicolor, like using only oil-free sunscreens and lotions, especially on your back. "Those areas sweat the most, and they already have excess natural oils which make your skin more damp and prone to yeast growth," says Janniger. You can also keep your skin cool and dry by sticking to loose, breathable fabrics like linen, says Bowe, and trying not to sit around in your sweaty exercise clothes for too long. And since tinea versicolor is an opportunistic infection, it's important to stay healthy and get enough sleep, so your immune system can do its job to fight the fungus off. That includes eating a balanced diet and limiting sugar and alcohol, which promote yeast growth, says Janniger. Otherwise, just enjoy your summer and make sure to check for any white spots!
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Certain behaviors can help prevent tinea versicolor, like using only oil-free sunscreens and lotions, especially on your back. "Those areas sweat the most, and they already have excess natural oils which make your skin more damp and prone to yeast growth," says Janniger.

You can also keep your skin cool and dry by sticking to loose, breathable fabrics like linen, says Bowe, and trying not to sit around in your sweaty exercise clothes for too long.

And since tinea versicolor is an opportunistic infection, it's important to stay healthy and get enough sleep, so your immune system can do its job to fight the fungus off. That includes eating a balanced diet and limiting sugar and alcohol, which promote yeast growth, says Janniger.

Otherwise, just enjoy your summer and make sure to check for any white spots!

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