An Overview of Melasma

In This Article

Melasma is a common skin pigmentation issue that causes dark, blotchy, and uneven skin tone on sun-exposed areas, chiefly on the face. It is more common in women than in men and generally appears for the first time in the 20s to 50s, or during pregnancy.

Although it's medically harmless, for many people the discoloration is a cause of embarrassment so it is common to seek treatment. Melasma is also called chloasma, or mask of pregnancy.

Triggers for Melasma
 Verywell / Alexandra Gordon 

Symptoms

Melasma causes hyperpigmentation or discolored marks that are darker than your surrounding skin. The skin looks blotchy and uneven, with irregular borders on the discolored spots.

The discoloration can range from slightly darker than your normal skin color to extremely dark. Depending on your skin tone and the severity of your melasma, the discoloration can be light brown to nearly black.

The marks are flat, not raised. They don't hurt, burn, or itch. In fact, you won't notice anything different about these areas of skin aside from the fact they're discolored.

Melasma develops on sun-exposed areas of the skin, most often the face. Above the upper lip, across the cheeks, nose, and forehead are all very common areas to find it, but melasma can develop anywhere on the face. It also can develop on the chest, upper arms, and upper back, though not as frequently.

The key factor with melasma is that it typically appears symmetrically on the face. You'll notice "matching" patches on both cheeks, or spots that have developed evenly across the nose or the forehead.

Causes

Melasma develops when there is an over-abundance of melanin in certain areas of the skin. Melanin is the substance that gives your skin, eyes, and hair their color. People with dark complexions have skin that produces more melanin; those with lighter complexions have less melanin.

Melanocytes are cells in your skin that create melanin. For reasons that aren't perfectly clear, these cells sometimes malfunction and start making more melanin in certain areas than in others. The excess melanin produces the dark, blotchy areas we know as melasma.

With melasma, the discoloration is mostly of the epidermis, which is the uppermost layer of the skin. There is growing evidence, though, that while the hyperpigmentation is localized to the epidermis, the deeper layers of the skin (the dermis) also has a role in melasma development.

Trigger Factors

There are certain trigger factors that make you more susceptible to developing melasma. The more of these factors you have, the more likely you are to develop melasma. But, in some cases, melasma develops without any apparent trigger factor.

Your Complexion

If your complexion is olive, medium, to medium-dark toned, and you tan very easily, you have a higher chance of developing melasma than those with either very light or very dark complexions. People who are most likely to develop melasma are those whose skin falls between a III and V on the Fitzpatrick scale (a way of measuring skin tone, with I being lightest complexions and VI being darkest complexions). It isn't as common in skin types that fall on the far ends of the spectrum.

Hormones

Melasma development is linked to increased estrogen hormones. This explains why melasma is much more common in women than it is in men. Men can develop it, though, especially if there is a strong family history.

Since thyroid problems affect the hormones, you also have a higher chance of developing melasma if you have thyroid issues.

Pregnancy

There's a reason why melasma is also called the "mask of pregnancy." It's estimated that melasma affects up to 70 percent of pregnant women, appearing during the second or third trimesters. Again, you can blame the increased levels of estrogen and progesterone.

Sun Exposure

Another huge trigger factor in melasma development is excessive sun exposure. In fact, you may notice your melasma looks more obvious during the sunnier summer months and fades a bit during the winter. The sun's ultraviolet rays stimulate the melanocytes to create more melanin.

In people with melasma, the dermis shows signs of prolonged sun exposure and sun damage.

Genetics

A person may be genetically predisposed to developing melasma. An overwhelming number of people with melasma also have relatives with the problem. So, if you have a strong family history, you should do your best to limit other trigger factors when possible.

Skin Inflammation

Cosmetic procedures that trigger skin inflammation, like chemical peels and laser treatments, can also trigger the development of melasma for some people.

Certain Drugs and Cosmetic Products

Certain medications may raise your risk of developing melasma. On this list are birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy (because they raise estrogen), anti-seizure medications, and tetracyclines. Also, any cosmetic products that make your skin more sensitive to the sun may up your risk. However, one of these are considered primary risk factors.

Diagnosis

Melasma diagnosis is done by a simple visual inspection by your doctor. She or he may also take a look at your skin under a Wood's lamp to more easily see the extent of the pigmentation.

A Wood's lamp is a type of black light. It illuminates the skin and allows the technician to easily see pigmentation and sun damage in comparison to normal skin. A Wood's lamp reveals sun damage on the surface of the skin, as well as damage that is deeper and not yet visible with the naked eye.

Very rarely, your doctor may do a biopsy of the affected area to confirm it is melasma. This is only done if there's a question it may be another skin problem.

Melasma is an incredibly common cosmetic issue. Melasma is not a precancerous skin condition, meaning it won't turn into skin cancer. (But excessive sun exposure, which is a trigger factor for developing melasma, does put you at a higher risk of skin cancer. So, it's always a good idea to wear sunscreen.) Melasma is also not contagious.

Other Conditions That Cause Skin Discoloration

There are many skin conditions that cause hyperpigmentation (a darkening of the skin). Most are fairly easy to differentiate from melasma, but some can look very similar, especially if you aren't familiar with them.

Age Spots or Liver Spots

Often called liver spots, age spots, or sun spots, the technical term for this type of hyperpigmentation is solar lentigines. Solar lentigines are round, oval, sometimes irregularly-shaped, dark marks. Like melasma, solar lentigines are flat areas of discoloration that develop over sun-exposed areas of skin. The difference is that melasma generally covers a larger in area and develops symmetrically on the face. Solar lentigines are more common in fair complexions.

Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

The key difference between post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and melasma is the cause. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation develops after some sort of inflammatory wound: a cut, scrape, burn, eczema patch, or inflammatory acne. It's not a scar, but rather a flat area of discolored skin left behind after the skin heals.

Freckles

Ephelides are what we commonly know as freckles. Freckles also develop because of sun exposure and certain skin types are more prone to them. They look like they're "sprinkled" across the skin, rather than in large patches like melasma.

Treatment

Melasma isn't a harmful condition; it's completely cosmetic. If it's not bothering you, you can choose to let it be. There is no medical reason to treat it.

In some cases, the discoloration may fade over time. This is most likely to happen if the melasma appeared during pregnancy.

However, if you do choose to treat it, you have several options.

Prescription Topical Medications

Topical prescription medications are the mainstay of melasma treatment. Depending on what your physician decide is best for you, you may be prescribed:

Over-the-Counter Products

Although over-the-counter products aren't the most effective options for treating melasma, they may help fade hyperpigmentation over time especially if the discoloration is rather minor. They also can be used as maintenance once you've achieved good results with other treatments. They include:

Procedural Treatments

In some cases, in-office procedures may be used to treat melasma. These are often used alongside other topical treatments. They include:

Sun Protection

Whatever treatment option you choose, there is one key step that you mustn't skip: sun protection. The sun is a huge factor when it comes to melasma development. No treatment will work well if you're not also protecting your skin from the sun.

Sun protection can't end when your melasma treatment does. Once you get your skin to the point where you're happy with the results, you still must be diligent in your sun protection routine. Even a few hours of unprotected sun exposure can cause melasma to come back more severely.

Apply sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher daily. You should apply sunscreen every day, as part of your skincare routine, even when it's cloudy or you're only spending limited time outdoors.

If you are going to be outdoors for longer periods of time, make sure you are reapplying your sunscreen often. Wearing a hat is also a good idea.

It goes without saying you shouldn't tan, either in the sun or in a tanning bed, if you're trying to improve melasma. You especially don't want to sunbathe while you're pregnant since you're more susceptible to developing melasma during pregnancy.

Coping

Melasma may be a mere annoyance without really bothering you. Or, you may be incredibly self-conscious or embarrassed by your melasma. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, your feelings are normal. It's also normal to feel frustrated with your treatments and how long they take to work, as well as the results you're getting (or not getting).

Undoubtedly, melasma is tough to treat. Here are a few tips to help you when you're feeling discouraged or self-conscious.

  • Use your treatments exactly as prescribed. Consistent treatment is key to getting the best results. If you aren't sure, ask your doctor for clarification.
  • Give treatments enough time to work. Melasma fades slowly, over a long period of time. You won't see results immediately. Try to be patient and expect treatment to last several months minimum.
  • Always protect your skin from the sun. This is especially important when treating melasma. Use sunscreen and wear protective clothing such as a hat.
  • Don't scrub. It may seem counterintuitive, but scrubbing at the skin isn't recommended. Scrubbing won't fade the discolorations, and can actually make them worse by irritating the skin and causing inflammation.
  • Try corrective makeup. Regular foundation or concealer can blend the discolorations and make them less obvious. If you want complete coverage, try camouflage makeup or corrective makeup. This type of product is specially formulated to completely cover all sorts of skin imperfections, from scars, vitiligo, tattoos, birthmarks, and melasma.
  • Be prepared to use some type of treatment long-term. Melasma is often stubborn. Topical products can keep discoloration in check, but if you stop using them the discoloration resurfaces. Regular, long-term use is your best defense to keep melasma at bay. Your dermatologist will help you devise the best long-term treatment plan for your skin.

A Word From Verywell

Melasma is an incredibly common skin condition. While harmless, it can create a sense of self-consciousness that would lead you to seek treatment. Remember, improving melasma requires a two-pronged approach, with treatment and sun protection. Your best option for improving melasma is to see a doctor for treatment.

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