"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Uncovering the causes and treatment of melasma

This difficult skin condition causes dark spots on the skin that may last for years.

By October, your summer tan might be almost gone, but a peek within the mirror may reveal some dark spots in your skin that appear to stay around. These brown or gray-brown spots, often on the brow, chin, cheeks, upper lip, or nose, can indicate a condition called melasma.

Melasma is usually called the mask of pregnancy, because it is usually triggered by a rise in hormones in pregnant women. But while this condition could also be common amongst pregnant women, it just isn't limited to them.

A persistent and annoying condition

Although melasma just isn't painful and poses no health risk, it could possibly cause significant emotional distress for the estimated six million American women who develop these dark spots on their faces. Dr. Kurosh says the condition might be difficult to treat, and there's a variety of misinformation about its causes.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you're more prone to have melasma if you have got a darker skin tone, probably because your skin naturally has more energetic pigment-producing cells. Melasma appears when these cells develop into overactive and produce an excessive amount of pigment in certain areas of the skin. The mechanism is analogous to what causes brown age spots and freckles, but melasma patches are larger.

Melasma is more common in women, but it could possibly affect men as well. It could have a genetic component, because it often runs in families.

Dr. Korosh says there are numerous different causes of melasma. Two specifically stand out:

Hormones (including hormonal drugs). Fluctuations in certain hormones may cause melasma, which is why it often occurs while pregnant. Dr. Gilchrist says melasma may also occur once you either start or stop hormonal contraception, including contraception pills, or once you take hormone substitute therapy.

Sun exposure. The sun is the most important offender in triggering melasma. “Underlying factors such as hormonal changes may not show up until someone goes on vacation to a southern location like Florida, or during the summer when they spend a lot of time in the sun,” says Dr. Korosh. are “The sun is a major increasing factor, whatever the underlying cause.” Melasma might be caused or worsened not only by the sun's rays, but in addition by heat and visual light. This signifies that even sunscreens that protect against skin cancer aren't enough to stop melasma, Dr. Korosh says. This makes treating melasma a challenge, especially throughout the summer months.

Treatment of melasma

The first step in treating melasma is to substantiate with a dermatologist that the dark spots in your skin are indeed melasma, and to find out what's causing it. Melasma treatment is unlikely to be effective if the underlying cause just isn't addressed, says Dr. Korosh. “Even the oral treatments that are now available for severe cases of melasma are really pointless to do, if there's still a trigger,” she says. If you continue to have exacerbating aspects, it's possible you'll just be on a hamster wheel, running and never improving.

“We take a thorough medical history to find out what's causing the melasma,” says Dr. Korosh. Then adjustments are made. If hormonal contraception is causing the issue, a girl may consider switching to a non-hormonal option, akin to a copper intrauterine device.

Beware of dangerous skin lightening scams

Avoid the sun.

The next step in melasma treatment is to stop the sun from worsening the condition. This may require extreme diligence. “The sun is more powerful than any medicine I can give you,” says Dr. Korosh. The most significant solution to clear up melasma is to make use of a robust sunscreen. But have in mind that not all sunscreens are created equal. To prevent melasma, you wish a sunscreen that not only blocks the sun's rays, but in addition its light and warmth.

There are two primary kinds of sunscreen:

  • Sunscreens that use chemicals, akin to oxybenzone

  • Sunscreens that use physical blockers, akin to zinc and titanium dioxide.

“You want to choose a non-chemical, blocking sunscreen, because it will block all light and different wavelengths,” says Dr. Korosh. Fortunately, these sunscreens have come a good distance from the old formulations that sat in a greasy, white layer in your skin. Today's zinc and titanium dioxide formulas are micronized so that they can sink into the skin, while still providing the identical protection. You should purchase them at your doctor's office, skincare stores, and even the pharmacy. “I'm not loyal to any particular brand,” says Dr. Korosh.

Chemical sunscreens don't offer the identical protection for melasma, and in some cases, they'll even trigger allergic reactions that could make melasma worse, she says.

You may give your skin extra protection by following up with makeup that comprises a second sunscreen to further block the sun's rays. Even in the autumn and winter, it's an excellent idea to wear a hat designed to offer protection from the sun when you're going to be outside for long periods of time.

Medications and treatment of conditions

Your dermatologist may prescribe medications or topical treatments to assist lighten melasma. Some commonly used options are topical retinols and retinoid treatments, that are applied to the skin to assist speed up your body's natural cell turnover process. This will help the dark spots clear up faster on their very own.

In addition, some doctors may prescribe bleaching agents, akin to hydroquinone, which works by blocking melanin production. But while hydroquinone products might be purchased over-the-counter, they need to only be used under a health care provider's supervision and only on dark areas of skin.

“High doses of hydroquinone can cause white patches on the skin,” says Dr. Gilchrist. The drug may even cause skin darkening in some cases.

Your dermatologist can also recommend kojic acid or azelaic acid, that are other topical skin-lightening agents, she says.

Other treatments which can be sometimes really helpful for melasma include chemical peels, laser treatments, and microneedling of the skin. But in the mean time they're not reliably effective, says Dr. Gilchrist.

For example, peels may match for some people. “And for some people it makes it worse. It's very difficult to predict,” says Dr. Gilchrist.

Home Remedies

There are many things you possibly can do yourself to heal your skin and forestall future damage. In addition to reducing sun exposure, try these steps:

Establish an excellent cleansing method. Environmental pollution can contribute to melasma, Dr. Korosh says. Airborne pollutants can bind to the skin and erode the protective layer, making it weaker and more liable to sun damage. Cleanse your skin every night before bed with a cleanser that may thoroughly remove impurities and help protect the skin, she says.

Fight skin stress with antioxidants. Vitamins C and E will help repair sun damage. So, placed on a couple of drops of a serum that comprises these vitamins to enhance skin health and avoid the harmful effects of sunlight.

Moisturize your skin usually. Use an excellent moisturizer after the serum to revive the skin's lipid (fatty) barrier, which helps protect it from damage.

be patient. Even with treatment, melasma can take months to clear up. No one is cured overnight.

Be diligent. Melasma will come back quickly when you are usually not careful about sun protection. Therefore, long-term care requires an ongoing commitment to protecting your skin.

Photo: © Tanya Loos/Getty Images