How Did Michael Jackson’s Skin Turn White? Actual Facts

Michael Jackson sold over 750 million records worldwide and is one of the top three best-selling musicians in history. But his vast fame and success on the international stage never meant that the superstar was far from controversy.

One of the most noticeable things to happen to him was the slow change in his skin color from brown to white over the course of a decade. While not as instantly jarring as some of the artist’s other antics, this would be the thing that received the most speculation and attention over time, with some still questioning how it happened today.

In this article, we’ll explain how Jackson’s skin turned white and dispel some of the rumors surrounding those events.

Unknown – The Jackson 5 with Hal Davis. Image source: Brownpatricks, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Jackson’s Skin Color Over Time

Before becoming one of the top three best-selling music artists in history, Jackson performed in The Jackson Five alongside his family members. I wasn’t around back then, nor was I for a large part of his career. For a kid born in the 90s that didn’t pay attention to what a celebrity looked like till the mid-2000s, Michael Jackson had always had white skin. But during his most glorious days, Jackson was a medium-brown color.

This remained constant until the middle of the 80s. He slowly began getting lighter, culminating in what appeared to be a lack of pigment entirely by the 90s.

Rumors Of How Michael Jackson’s Skin Changed

There were plenty of rumors out there surrounding the mysterious skin transformation of Jackson. Even though I grew up long after it had finished, I heard plenty in my school days. The more outlandish theories people believed included things like deals with the devil, him not being black in the first place, or even our reptilian overlords replacing him because he was just a robot the whole time anyways. Obviously, none of these theories are facts, but neither are the more grounded ones we are about to cover.

The most prevalent and widespread theory about his skin turning white was that it was the result of numerous plastic surgeries. In all honesty, this was a fairly believable theory on the surface. Once the change was completed, Jackson looked like a completely different person and had likely had some amount of plastic surgery done anyways. His eyebrows, lashes, lips, and nose had all been worked on in the past. So many people implied he was trying to become white.

Another theory was that he purposefully bleached his skin. This one actually had some solid logic thanks to common treatments for why his skin actually changed color. Those we’ll deal with later. However, many believed he bleached his skin using Benoquin cream and others.

June 07, 1992 – Michael Jackson on his Dangerous Tour in Monza, Italy. Image source: Daniele Dalledonne from Trento, Italy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of the most well-known theories about it revolved around him trying to become white. Whether the reasoning was to hide being black or try to gain favor by being white or whatever, it doesn’t matter. The plastic surgery angle had a bit of that racial tension involved, stating he wanted to look more white and the skin bleaching angle was completely for him to try to be white.

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While some people speculated that he intentionally changed skin tones to hide his African heritage, this is unequivocally untrue. I saw this question pop up a lot in my research and thought it should be addressed, as it was the backing for most of the well-known conspiracies of why his skin turned white, especially the ones we just covered.

Early February 1988 – Michael Jackson (cropped) at the Kahala Hilton Hotel. Image source: photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For absolute clarity, he did not turn his skin white on purpose. He was not trying to be a white person. And his skin changing color was completely outside of his control.

The Real Reason Michael Jackson’s Skin Turned White

The truth about Jackson’s skin turning white is that it was the medical condition called vitiligo that caused it. While there were some other factors involved—in a small way giving validity to some conspiracy theories—that was the biggest contributor to his condition.

Unknown – A hand of a person with Vitiligo. Image source: James Heilman, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He had vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes patches of a person’s skin to lose pigmentation. We’ll delve into this in detail in our next section, but what is important is that you know his skin changing was mainly due to the areas of his body that were affected by vitiligo.

The reason some conspiracies ended up being half-truths is the treatments typically employed for someone with vitiligo. The creams that are used to treat it can often bleach the skin around the areas affected, causing them to appear to grow larger. Jackson also often used them on his body as a whole, in a way helping lighten the skin tone of his entire body. Benoquin, the very cream he was accused of using to “become white,” is one of the medicines prescribed to people with vitiligo.

1984 – Michael Jackson (cropped) for a campaign launch against drunk driving at the White House. Image source: White House Photo Office, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things most people never noticed was Jackson’s fashion choices. His clothing was one of the ways he helped camouflage the affected areas of his body. He almost always wore long sleeves and long pants, keeping as much of his body covered as possible to avoid people being able to see the vitiligo spots. Heck, his signature singular gloved hand was created because of the condition. His vitiligo started on that hand, so the glove was used to hide it.

He also used pale makeup quite often to blend the spots without pigment into the rest of his body, which is why he ended up becoming so pale in all of his appearances. The makeup itself could also have contributed to the lightening of his skin as a whole.

But vitiligo, the medicines used to treat it, and Jackson’s prolific use of makeup were not the only things that turned his skin lighter. He had another autoimmune disease named discoid lupus erythematosus. Anyone that knows about lupus knows how awful it can be, but few know that the condition can cause your skin to lose pigmentation. Not in spots like vitiligo, but across your entire body. It also causes extreme sun sensitivity, much like vitiligo patches.

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What Is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes patches of a person’s skin to lose color or pigment. While the underlying cause of the disorder is unknown, it’s likely a combination of genetics, immune system issues, stress, and/or sun exposure.

Unknown – Vitiligo. Image source: James Heilman, MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On its own, it is not dangerous and only affects the pigmentation of a person’s skin. It can cause patches of any size to form on a person’s body but tends to occur most frequently on the extremities. The hands and face are the most common areas for vitiligo to begin forming.

The loss of pigment leaves people with the condition extremely sensitive to sunlight. Discolored skin also has a much higher risk of developing melanomas and skin cancer.

There is no cure for vitiligo, though there are some treatment options available. The first option people are given is usually a steroid cream that is rubbed onto the skin.

Phototherapy is essentially just applying UV light to the vitiligo lesions on the skin. It’s generally combined with the creams used earlier to attempt to add pigmentation back into the skin.

One of the most common ways mild vitiligo is dealt with is by using makeup. Makeup is used as a camouflage to hide whichever areas the person diagnosed with vitiligo has them.

2022 – Person wearing sunglasses and mask. Image source: Hu Nhu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The final treatment option is to remove pigment from the areas not affected by vitiligo with topical drugs. This is usually the last option given to patients and is only offered in cases of extreme or severe vitiligo. After this is done, sun safety must be adhered to for life to avoid melanomas.

The Criticism That Followed and Michael Jackson’s Response

Jackson received quite a lot of criticism by the end of his skin transformation. Some people argued that he was a “lousy role model for Black youths.” Dennis Chestnut, in particular, stated that he had given “black youth a feeling that they can achieve,” but undermined it by changing skin color.

2003 – Michael Jackson at The Cable Show. Image source: INTX: The Internet & Television Expo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other celebrities argued that Jackson made the change because he wanted to get more film and television roles. And, even without the influence of social media and the backlash that goes with it, others decried his skin tone change as something awful, racist, and generally bad.

Pretty much all of those people ended up eating their words though.

January 2004 – Oprah at the Hotel Bel Air. Image source: photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The point that Jackson directly confronted the criticism of his changes was on a 1993 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Vitiligo was a rather unknown condition at the time, but he brought it to the forefront by using it as the explanation for his skin changes. He would further bring on his dermatologist—a few days later—to confirm his diagnosis.

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While performing, Jackson stated that he used makeup to even out the patches of his skin, making him seem even more pale than he was. He also blasted critics in the Oprah interview, with quotes like “It is something I cannot help,” he said. “When people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me. It’s a problem for me. I can’t control it. But what about all the millions of people who sit in the sun to become darker, to become other than what they are? Nobody says nothing about that.”

The interview with Oprah and subsequent confirmations from Jackson’s doctors did a lot to alleviate the racial pressure and criticism levied against him. Of course, not everyone believed him when he explained his skin change, however, there is little to no evidence to refute his own claims. His autopsy confirmed that he had vitiligo, specifically the focal depigmentation style of it. He had five affected areas and received his initial diagnosis as early as 1985.

The good thing to come from his interview is that over 60 million people were watching the interview, so it shed light on a highly misunderstood condition that many people suffer from. Not only did it bring national attention to the condition, it helped normalize it. Today, people with vitiligo are much better understood and face less scrutiny and hate for the way their skin behaves.

His condition would go on to inspire his hit Black Or White. As he had grown up as an African American, he saw first-hand the prejudices and injustices those in that community face in the US. In his later life, he appears to be a white man, with his song mirroring the transition in his life that saw him on both sides of the racial coin.

Did Michael Jackson’s Vitiligo Contribute to His Death?

Vitiligo is not life-threatening, nor is it contagious. While it isn’t a condition that is perfectly understood, it in no way affects the life expectancy of the person with it. The areas it does affect are only centered in the skin cells that create pigmentation.

Jackson had several health issues on top of lupus and vitiligo, with the former of those two contributing more to his death than the latter. What really led to his death was the alleged child abuse he suffered, his heart problems that appeared later in life, and his dependency on prescription drugs.

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