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What is melasma?

Melasma is a common skin problem. It causes brown to gray-brown patches, usually on the face. Most people get it on their cheeks, bridge of their nose, forehead, chin, and above their upper lip. It also can appear on other parts of the body that get lots of sun, such as the forearms and neck

Melasma

Your forehead is a common place to get melasma.

One of the most common treatments for melasma is sun protection. This means wearing sunscreen every day and reapplying the sunscreen every two hours. skin specialists also recommend wearing a wide-brimmed hat when you are outside. Sunscreen alone may not give you the protection you need.

Women are far more likely than men to get melasma. It is so common during pregnancy that melasma is sometimes called “the mask of pregnancy.” Hormones seem to trigger melasma.

What are the signs of melasma?

Common signs (what you see) of melasma are brown or gray-brown patches on the face. These patches most commonly appear on the:

  • Cheeks
  • Forehead
  • Bridge of the nose
  • Above the upper lip
  • Chin

Some people get patches on their forearms or neck. This is less common.

Melasma

Blotchy patches of darker color often appear on the cheeks. The woman on the right developed the brown patches while pregnant.

Melasma patches of darker colored skin on the cheeks

Melasma does not cause any symptoms (what people feel). But many people dislike the way melasma makes their skin look. If you dislike these patches, sun protection and treatment can help.

Who gets melasma?

Melasma appears on women’s skin much more often than men’s skin. Just 10% of people who get melasma are men.

People with darker skin, such as those of Latin/Hispanic, North African, African-American, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean descent are more likely to get melasma. People who have a blood relative who had melasma also are much more likely to get melasma.

What causes melasma?

What causes melasma is not yet clear. It likely occurs when the color-making cells in the skin (melanocytes) produce too much color. People with skin of color are more prone to melasma because they have more active melanocytes than people with light skin.

Common melasma triggers (what starts it) include:

  • Sun exposure: Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun stimulates the melanocytes. In fact, just a small amount of sun exposure can make melasma return after fading. Sun exposure is why melasma often is worse in summer. It also is the main reason why many people with melasma get it again and again.
  • A change in hormones: Pregnant women often get melasma. When melasma appears in pregnant women, it is called chloasma, or the mask of pregnancy. Birth control pills and hormone replacement medicine also can trigger melasma.
  • Skin care products: If a product irritates your skin, melasma can worsen.

Tips to make melasma less noticeable

Melasma is a common skin problem that causes brown to gray-brown patches on the face. Although the exact causes of melasma are unclear, common triggers include sun exposure, pregnancy, birth control pills, and cosmetics.

If you have melasma, skin specialists recommend the following tips for achieving a more even skin tone:

Wear sunscreen daily. One of the most common treatments for melasma is sun protection. Since sunlight triggers melasma, it is important to wear sunscreen every day, even on cloudy days and after swimming or sweating. Choose a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection, a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more, and zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to physically limit the effects of the sun’s rays on your skin. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside and reapply at least every two hours.

Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when you’re outside. As a recent study in the journal Nature illustrates, sunscreen alone may not give you the sun protection you need. Whenever possible, seek shade and wear protective clothing in addition to applying sunscreen.

Choose gentle skin care products. Choose skin care products that don’t sting or burn, as products that irritate the skin may worsen melasma.

Avoid waxing. Waxing may cause skin inflammation which can worsen melasma, so it’s important to avoid waxing areas of the body affected by the condition. Ask a skin specialist about other types of hair removal that may be right for you.

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