Random brown or grayish blotches popping up on your face? It could be melasma. Melasma is a very common skin condition, affecting over five million Americans (1). And I am one of them. It affects people of all ages, from the young to the elderly, and while it can be caused by an array of factors, including genetics, the two most common are sun damage and hormones. It’s often referred to as the “mask of pregnancy”, as it’s more prevalent in women who are expecting. This is because a spike in estrogen, along with skin being more sensitive to light, makes pregnant women extra susceptible. In fact, celebrity moms like Jenna Dewan and Drew Barrymore recently opened up about their own experience with the condition, shedding some much-needed light on the topic. So, lets dive a bit deeper and talk about how it can be recognized and managed.
Melasma shares several characteristics with a broader form of skin discoloration, so the two can easily be confused. Post-blemish scarring, eczema and psoriasis and melasma, all fall under the umbrella of hyperpigmentation. However, melasma patches are larger, and while it can show up on any part of the body, it’s most commonly seen on the bridge of the nose, forehead, chin and cheeks. It tends to be more stubborn and is more difficult to treat! For this reason, it’s important that you confirm your skin condition with your dermatologist before attempting to treat it, since as stated above, melasma requires different treatment options than other forms of skin hypermigration.
Now, is it dangerous? No. Is it bothersome and frustrating? Definitely! And, unfortunately, there’s no cure for melasma, but it’s not always permanent and it can be managed. The first step in doing so is to identify what triggers it. Heat or sun/light exposure, a change in hormones (due to pregnancy or birth control pills) and harsh cosmetics or toiletries could all be culprits. As mentioned already, the sun is one of the biggest causes of melasma, and so it’s no surprise that it can also exacerbate it and can cause it to become darker and more noticeable. For that reason, whether for prevention or management, it’s important to be especially defensive during the warmer months and always adhere to a strict sunscreen regimen (year-round). You’ll remember from our last blog post, however, that not all sunscreens are created equal, so be selective and choose an effective one!
Here are the five steps I take to manage my melasma:
- I avoid saunas and Jacuzzis. Although they’re relaxing and have some therapeutic benefits, the heat from these stimulates the production of pigments, which can cause melasma to worsen. If you’re looking for a way to wind down, consider taking up meditation or light yoga instead!
- I avoid harsh products that contain ingredients like sulfates, alcohol and fragrances. This is a crucial one! Harsh skincare products can cause low grade inflammation that can make the melasma worse. I considered all of my beauty habits and took a hard look into the products I was using. This included those for my everyday skincare and makeup routine. I now only use simple products with minimal ingredients that contain nourishing vitamins and minerals to help soothe and moisturize my skin. The Papillon camellia oil or rosewater facial mist are both great for this! You want to use products that are full of antioxidants and vitamin C.
- I use a physical sunscreen daily.A physical sunscreen that contains Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are best suited for those with melasma - they are the only types of sunscreen that work as a barrier to prevent the sun’s rays from penetrating the skin. Two of my favorite brands include Babo and Ulta MD. I also love the Mineral Fusion and Brush on Block powder sunscreens – I keep them in my purse and my car since they are easy to apply on top of makeup. I’m always sure to lather up even on cloudy days, and I reapply frequently when outside for extended periods of time. (Pro tip: I often mix my sunscreen with a natural pomegranate oil, which is full of antioxidants, to help boost sun protection and lighten/treat existing sun damage.) I throw on a wide brim hat + sunglasses and call it safeguarding in style!
- I eat a balanced diet. I consume foods and drinks that are high in skin-loving antioxidants and avoid those that are inflammatory. For example, I stay away from sugar, sweeteners and spicy foods. In my opinion there is a definite connection between the liver and melasma, so I’ve cut out soft drinks altogether. My diet typically includes a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, nuts and seafoods that are full of antioxidants like wild salmon and walnuts, and drink lots of water of course!
- I avoid conventional “solutions” to fight my melasma. There are several “quick fix” options out there, including peels, dermabrasion, lasers, light therapy and topical brightening creams with toxic ingredients like hydroquinone. However, most of these are quite harsh and can actually complicate skin issues even further. The urge to fight your melasma aggressively often backfires, and I’m saying this from firsthand experience. I tested out laser therapy years ago, and ultimately decided it wasn’t the best route for me. Mine ended up coming back worse than ever!
- This is a bit contradictory to step five, but on the advice of my dermatologist, Dr. Ip of Vibrant Dermatology & Skinbar MD, I tried micro-needling last summer and I definitely noticed a difference on my forehead from one session. I am planning to do another session in the next month and I will document the whole process to take you along on the actual treatment and healing.
Like anything, it’s important to really do your research before deciding on how to best manage your melasma. A more holistic approach has worked best for me, but I definitely encourage you to talk with your dermatologist and ask for specific recommendations. It may take time and a little persistence to see results, but keep at it, and remember that you’re not alone. Everyone's experience with melasma will be unique!
**** Disclaimer: I am not a dermatologist. I am only sharing my experience with melasma and what worked for me. You should always consult with your doctor to confirm your skin condition and before starting any treatment.