- What is melasma?
- Is melasma dangerous?
- What causes melasma?
- Melasma vs. hyperpigmentation
- Can melasma be cured?
- How can melasma be treated?
- How can melasma be prevented?
- Melasma is stubborn, but it can be treated with the help of skin experts
Ever noticed blotchy, dark patches showing up on your face? Does it happen when you’re going through hormonal changes, such as pregnancy? It could be melasma.
But why? What causes melasma? And more importantly, how can one get rid of it?
Forge ahead; we’re going to explain answers to those questions in this article.
What is melasma?
First, let’s establish that you (might) have melasma (but you’ll definitely seek a doctor’s opinion and not self-diagnose on the internet, right?). Melasma appears as stubborn, brown or blue-gray pigmented patches on your forehead, cheeks, upper lip, nose or forearms.
On a side note, melasma can sometimes be called “chloasma.”
This condition can happen during gestation, which is why it’s sometimes called “the mask of pregnancy.” It can also occur when taking oral contraceptives, or other hormone-affecting medications.
That said, melasma can affect anyone. It just so happens to be more prevalent in adult women.
Is melasma dangerous?
What causes melasma?
Researchers are not sure exactly why melasma occurs. They do know it happens from overactive melanocytes in the skin.
Melanocytes are the little ‘factories’ in your skin that create pigment to protect you from UV damage. This pigment is called melanin. People with totally inactive melanocytes have albinism. This is when the skin, hair and eyes appear white.
When melanocytes behave ‘normally,’ skin appears as one, even colour tone. When you tan, melanocytes produce more melanin as an immune response. As a result, your skin darkens.
When melanocytes are damaged, they can begin to produce melanin unevenly. This results in dark patches in the skin, called hyperpigmentation.
Researchers believe there are three main factors in melasma sufferers that trigger excess pigment production, leading to blotchy skin. They are:
Hormone related factors
Hormone changes can come from pregnancy (progesterone surges), birth control pills, genetic conditions or other medications and therapies.
As the primary source of pigment deformities in the skin, the sun’s powerful UVA and UVB rays can affect anyone, even on cloudy days, and through windows. The effects of sun exposure are worse when someone has melasma.
The sources below explain more about the underlying causes behind melasma and skin pigment production:
- Hyperpigmentation treatments: combat skin pigmentation issues using lasers, prescriptions, cosmeceuticals and more
- What are free radicals, and how do they cause our skin to age?
Melasma vs. hyperpigmentation
Melasma and hyperpigmentation are two words that can often be used interchangeably in conversation.
However, by definition, they are not exactly the same.
Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation.
Melasma is defined by:
- Its broad, patchy appearance (which is often symmetrical on both sides of the face)
- Its source of occurrence (i.e. hormonal changes, genetics, medication, etc.)
- It’s worsening and lightening with the seasons
Other types of hyperpigmentation can be:
These usually form from sun exposure or trauma to the skin (such as from burns or cuts). While they can also be genetic, their primary cause is different.
Can melasma be cured?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, while melasma can be treated, it can not be permanently cured. It is likely to recur, especially if you are not taking active measures to keep it under control.
How can melasma be treated?
Melasma is typically treated topically. However, if medications are causing your melasma, it’s best to speak with your doctor about possible alternatives.
Topical melasma treatments include:
Targeted skin care products
There are specific products on the market that can help to lighten melasma’s brown patches. These are sometimes called, “skin lighteners” or “skin bleachers” (though, you should never use bleaching products on your skin).
While hydroquinone is a popular skin lightener, it should not be used long-term. Alternatives include:
- Tranexamic acid
- Phenylethyl resorcinol
- Azelaic acid
- Growth factors
See more on our blog:
- What are the best skin care ingredients for treating melasma?
- Beta-carotene, vitamin A, retinoids and retinol: what are they and which one is best for skin care?
Chemical peels are a type of facial. They come in varying strengths.
When done properly, chemical peels can help remove the top layers of skin that have been over-pigmented by melanocytes. The body then produces new, healthy skin.
Very strong chemical peels can result in more peeling (literally, the skin peels off in the days following treatment).
The key is to not ‘overdo’ a chemical peel, or use the wrong ingredients. These can cause burns, which can result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a type of hyperpigmentation caused by skin trauma, as noted above).
For this reason, you should always have chemical peels done in a doctor-directed, in-clinic setting.
See more on our blog:
Lasers are a more recent advancement in the progress towards hyperpigmentation solutions. Lasers are unique in that they can work in one of two ways:
- They can take off thin layers of skin, to help kick-start collagen regeneration
- They can target and clear away specific pigments in the skin
Regular laser facials can gradually improve melasma and keep it at bay. They can be intense, requiring weeks of downtime, or they can be mild, requiring little to no downtime.
When they are intense, laser facials are usually called “laser skin resurfacing.”
Skin resurfacing lasers include:
Less intense laser facials can be done with:
As with all melasma treatments, laser facials must be done under the careful supervision of a doctor with experience treating pigment issues. This is because, on some people, laser treatments can worsen melasma, if done incorrectly.
See more on our blog:
- How do CO2, Erbium and skin resurfacing lasers work?
- Is CO2 skin resurfacing right for you? Here are 5 things to consider
A note about lasers vs. IPL and BBL
Laser facials can be done with a variety of lasers. However, it’s important to note that lasers are different from IPL or BBL treatments. IPL and BBL are broad spectrums of light. They are not as precisely targeted as laser beams, which deliver light energy to one specific depth or colour in the skin.
Since IPL and BBL are not as precise, they can affect surrounding skin cells, which may not be desirable when treating melasma. Delivering energy to the wrong areas can result in burns, which can worsen hyperpigmentation.
Medical-grade facials are less intense than lasers or strong chemical peels. However, they are also stronger than at-home facials or face masks. Because of their strength, they are typically performed by trained aestheticians.
The goal of medical-grade facials is to routinely exfoliate the skin to keep it soft, glowing and to get rid of old skin, which can be hyperpigmented.
Medical-grade facials can be mechanical, chemical or both. That is, they can use tools to exfoliate your skin, or they can use chemicals to do the job. Sometimes, it is both.
Common medical-grade facials include:
The term “medical-grade facials” can also encompass milder forms of laser facials, noted above.
See more on our blog:
- 6 Medical-grade facials in Vancouver you need to try at least once
- Chemical peels vs laser peels vs microdermabrasion: which one is right for you?
How can melasma be prevented?
While some causes of melasma can not be prevented (such as hormonal changes), there are measures you can take to reduce the chances of severe hyperpigmentation.
If you have melasma, you should expect that sun exposure will flare up your condition. Plus, if you use any skin lightening products, or undergo any melasma treatments, your sensitivity to the sun will only worsen.
While all individuals should be re-applying sunscreen every two hours, melasma sufferers should heed this advice all the more.
In truth, no doctor or technology can help your melasma if you are not taking active measures to protect yourself from UV rays – whether from the sun, tanning beds, or otherwise.
You should always:
- Avoid being outdoors between 10 a.m and 4 p.m.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing that covers you up.
- Apply a broad-spectrum, high SPF sunscreen every day, even if it’s cloudy outside, or you are near windows. Then, reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.
Try in our shop:
Even Up® Clinical Pigment Perfector® SPF 50 by Colorescience®
(Tinted sunscreen + hyperpigmentation treatment in one)
Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ Face Shield SPF 50 w/ EnviroScreen®
(Uber popular face sunscreen with blue light protection)
Melasma is stubborn, but it can be treated with the help of skin experts
As we have seen above, melasma is a non-dangerous skin condition that appears as blotchy, dark patches on the face, and sometimes the body. It happens mostly in adult women, especially those who are pregnant. Researchers don’t know why it happens, but they do know that it seems to be triggered by hormone fluctuations and sun exposure. While it can not be cured, it can be treated. Treatments for melasma include skin care products, chemical peels, laser facials, skin resurfacing and medical-grade facials. Sunscreen is always necessary when tackling melasma.
See more on our blog:
- 3 Top myths about hyperpigmentation and their truths
- How successful melasma treatments are measured and why it matters
- How to treat underarm hyperpigmentation and prevent it in the first place