While you might be lucky enough to not experience acne by the time you reach your mid-20s, some people may find a new skin condition cropping up during this period in life: melasma. And similar to treating breakouts, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as trying to get rid of this particular form of hyperpigmentation. While there’s currently no cure for it, rest assured, there are some ways to minimize the look of it, and prevent it in the future.
For starters, New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD says melasma is a commonly acquired disorder of hyperpigmentation that affects sun-exposed areas of skin, usually on the face. “It appears as hyperpigmented irregular patches occurring most often on the forehead, cheeks, chin, nose, and upper lip,” she explains.
And no, this skin condition isn’t the same as your average dark spot. “Although melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation (dark spot), it’s different mainly by its cause and presentation,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi says. “It’s characterized by solid patches of hyperpigmentation and its predictable locations, [like the] upper lip, cheeks, forehead. It’s also caused by hormonal changes and not just sun.”
According to The American Academy of Dermatology, 90% of people with melasma are women, while only 10% are men. Additionally, the website states that individuals with darker skin are more prone to get melasma, such as those of Latin/Hispanic, North African, African-American, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean descent.
“Melasma has been linked to sun exposure and estrogen, which explains why many women are more prone to developing melasma during pregnancy or with the use of some birth control methods or hormone therapies,” Dr. Murphy-Rose explains. But, according to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Diane Madfes, there is no set age for someone to develop melasma; however, it tends to start in the early 20s when the use of oral contraceptives and pregnancy is more common. “The exact mechanism is unknown but we are aware of a genetic component,” she adds.
Below, find out the dermatologist-approved ways to minimize the appearance of melasma. Remember: The approach isn’t quite the same as treating a dark spot, so read on for the expert tips to treat and prevent this pesky form of hyperpigmentation.
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Look For Specific Ingredients
When you’re on the hunt for products that minimize the look of melasma, you’ll want to keep your eyes open for a few ingredients. “Kojic acid, tranexamic acid, cysteamine, vitamin C, and niacinamide are skin care ingredients that can treat and prevent melasma by interfering with melanin synthesis in the skin,” Dr. Murphy-Rose says. “Many of these ingredients are also antioxidants that prevent free radical environmental damage.” Remember, dark spots are essentially a build up of excess melanin in the skin, so preventing the process is a must in the fight against this skin issue.
The dermatologist adds that retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) will increase skin cell turnover and exfoliate to help shed darkened areas quicker — but note that they increase sun sensitivity (meaning, sun protection is extra crucial to avoid irritation).
Don’t Forget To Wear Daily Sunscreen
“An essential part of any melasma treatment plan is sunscreen, as [it] helps to prevent the discoloration from darkening,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick explains. To add to that, Dr. W. Elliot Love says, “when out in the sun, it is imperative to keep the areas involved shaded or covered with sunscreen (SPF 30-50). Sunscreen must be reapplied every 90 to 120 minutes for prolonged exposure.” If you don’t reapply, you won’t receive the UV blocking or neutralizing benefits of your SPF throughout the day, which makes you vulnerable to dark spots and sun damage.
When shopping for sunscreen, Dr. Garshick recommends broad-spectrum (which has UVA and UVB coverage), physical SPF formulas — which are zinc or titanium dioxide-based — that are SPF 30 or higher. And although they are ideal for wearing under makeup or for avoiding that white cast, chemical SPFs are not going to help prevent melasma from forming or darkening.
“Chemical sunscreen does not protect against melasma — and, in fact, can actually worsen melasma — because it requires the sun’s rays to be absorbed into [the] skin first before chemically converting them into heat and releasing them,” Dr. Dendy Engleman tells TZR. Since heat can activate melasma formation, it’s imperative to stick with a mineral or physical formula for protection.
“Additionally, studies suggest that those with hyperpigmentation or melasma may be more susceptible to worsening discoloration from high energy visible light or blue light,” Dr. Garshick adds. For this, the dermatologist also suggests formulas that protect against blue light, such as sunscreens that contain iron oxide.
Avoid At-Home Devices
While there are tons of at-home devices available on the market to treat a number of skin concerns, melasma isn’t one of them. “In general, it is best to avoid at-home tools that can potentially cause injury to the skin as this can result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and potentially worsen discoloration,” Dr. Garshick explains. “Because it is thought that blue light can potentially worsen pigmentation and it is thought that some blue light may be emitted from our devices, using a blue light block screen protector such as EyeJust can help to provide additional protection for the skin.” And while your computer and laptop do emit blue light, remember that the sun is actually the largest source of blue light — again, SPF is your best friend here.
Schedule An In-Office Treatment
Dr. Madfes explains that many professional treatments can help control melasma. “The goal is to lift the pigment from the deeper layers of the skin,” she explains. “A combination of chemical peels and laser treatments, [such as] Clear + Brilliant Permea [and] Fraxel 1927, increase exfoliation and decrease the melanophages holding pigment in the skin.” On top of that, the expert says that topical tranexamic acid applied to the skin after microneedling can help reduce melasma pigmentation as well.
Not sure where to go? If you’re in New York, head over to Ingleton Dermatology and see Dr. Rosemarie Ingleton MD for a melasma laser treatment. Or, if you reside in Los Angeles, book an appointment at FACILE Dermatology + Boutique with co-founder Nancy Samolitis, MD, FAAD.
Whether or not you have the time and resources to seek in-office treatment, consulting a dermatologist can provide you with more knowledge on how to best minimize your existing melasma patches, as well as tips to prevent hyperpigmentation in the future.