Melasma 101: Everything You Need to Know About This Common Skin Condition

BY Jessie Quinn · February 27, 2018

model with freckles

Experiencing a flare-up of dark patches on your complexion? It could be a hormone-triggered type of hyperpigmentation commonly known as “the mask of pregnancy,” or melasma. The good news? It can be treated with in-office treatments and home remedies in the form of powerful skin care products. Curious to know more? We tapped one of Dr. Oz’s favorite dermatologists to find out what causes melasma, how to tell if you have hormonal hyperpigmentation, how to get rid of it and more. See our dermatologist’s guide to melasma, ahead!

What Is Melasma?

Also referred to as pregnancy mask, “melasma is a condition caused by hormonal change from pregnancy or hormonal treatments, such as birth control,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FASDS, FAAD. “It usually appears in patches on the face—forehead and upper lip are sites of predilection—and it’s more likely in women than men,” she adds.

How Does Birth Control Affect Melasma?

“The hormonal changes from birth control can trigger melasma by stimulating the melanocytes to produce melanin pigment,” says Dr. Engelman. That said, just because someone takes birth control doesn’t mean they will experience hyperpigmentation. “Not everyone on birth control will get melasma, some are more prone than others,” adds Dr. Engelman.

What Does Melasma Look Like?

Wondering how to tell if you have melasma? While a dermatologist can best determine whether or not it’s actually the mask of pregnancy, knowing what it looks like can also help. “Melasma is patchy, with more distinct patterns,” says Dr. Engelman. “It can also appear gray—unlike freckles or sunspots, which are brown in color,” she adds.

When Should You Seek Treatment?

If you notice these dark patches on the skin, you may want to book an appointment with your dermatologist to “make sure this is what you have and strategize a treatment plan,” says Dr. Engelman.

Precautions to Consider

One key thing to consider? Sun exposure. “Hyperpigmentation is caused when melanin—what gives our hair and skin color—is overproduced in certain spots on the skin,” says Dr. Engelman. “Melanin goes into overproduction in the sun to protect our skin from harmful UV rays, causing them to look darker than your natural skin tone,” she adds. “Exposure to the sun makes the issue worse,” she explains.

In addition to the sun’s UV rays, Dr. Engelman warns against using products with salicylic acid, as it can have a damaging effect on melasma-ridden skin.

On top of that, your diet may also have an effect on melasma. “It has been reported that avoiding certain foods with high estrogen content—e.g. dried fruit, chickpeas, tofu, soy and multigrain bread—will help limit or correct melasma,” says Dr. Engelman.

How to Get Rid of Melasma

While melasma can be frustrating, there are some home remedies that can help fade dark patches. Furthermore, “in-office procedures like IPL and Pulsed Dye Laser treatment (PDL) will reduce symptoms,” says Dr. Engelman.

For those looking to reduce the look of melasma at home, Dr. Engelman recommends the following:

1. Consistent Use of Sunscreen

Dr. Engelman’s top choice for helping to reduce signs of melasma? Sunscreen. “The safest sun protection to use is physical [sunscreen] made with either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide,” she says. As previously mentioned, melasma-ridden skin can be ultra-sensitive to sunlight, as the UV rays cause the skin to go into melanin overdrive. Applying (and reapplying) sunscreen daily can help keep hyperpigmentation from worsening.

Try: EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 

Your search for a physical sunscreen enriched with zinc oxide ends here. Formulated with hyaluronic and lactic acid, EltaMD’s UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 doesn’t just create a barrier between your skin and the sun’s UV rays, it can help moisturize and protect the complexion, too. Not to mention: Its oil-free formula makes it ideal for everyday use.

2. Glycolic Acid Treatments

Another home remedy for melasma? Glycolic acid. “Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is safe during pregnancy,” says Dr. Engelman. “Glycolic acid is great for combating the hyperpigmentation that can occur from the hormonal surges [during] pregnancy, called chloasma,” she adds.

Try: Elizabeth Arden Skin Illuminating Retexturizing Pads

“When I was pregnant, I used Elizabeth Arden’s Retexturizing Pads with 5% glycolic acid,” says Dr. Engelman. “I would often wash with a gentle cleanser, then use these as a ‘treatment toner’ two to three times a week,” she adds. Formulated with citrus extracts that promote radiant skin, the brightening treatment not only helps with signs of melasma, it can also work to retexture the skin and promote a more youthful-looking appearance.

3. Regular Exfoliation

While exfoliation can be an excellent way to promote softer, smoother skin in your weekly or bi-weekly skin care regimen, it can also have a positive effect on hyperpigmentation. Dr. Engelman suggests incorporating a chemical or physical exfoliant to help fade and lighten dark patches on skin.

Try: Éminence Organics Strawberry Rhubarb Dermafoliant

4. Brightening Serums

Another product to look for when treating melasma at home? Brightening serums. If you want more and brighter-looking skin, brightening serums can do just that. One thing to keep in mind is that, “generally, it takes about two to four weeks to see effects,” says Jeanette Jackninm, MD. “I would use a brightening serum twice a day, in the morning before applying an SPF 30 sunscreen and at night. Just be consistent, and remember to back down if your skin gets irritated, red, too white or blotchy,” she notes.

Try: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense

Featuring tried-and-tested depigmenting ingredients niacinamide, kojic acid, hydroxyethylpiperazine ethane sulfonic acid (HEPES) and tranexamic acid (TXA), this clinically proven brightening treatment tackles hyperpigmentation from all angles: inhibiting pigment-producing enzymes (tyrosinase), disrupting melanin transfer and exfoliation.

Jessie Quinn

Jessie Quinn is a writer and editor with work published in NYLON Magazine, StyleCaster.com, Girlboss.com, Marvel.com, and more. She is a graduate of Academy of Art University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fashion Journa... Read More >

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