How Melasma Is Treated

Melasma is an incredibly common hyperpigmentation problem. Fortunately, it isn't harmful, so there's no medical reason to treat it. However, since it occurs on such visible areas like the face and chest, many people feel self-conscious about it and choose to treat it.

Treatment for melasma must be done thoughtfully, on a case-by-case basis, in order to get the best possible results. Your treatment regimen may not look at all like what your someone else did for their melasma, and that's okay. Each individual case responds to treatment differently.

Helpful Tips for Melasma
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Before you begin treatment, realize that melasma is stubborn. So, if you want to get good, lasting results, you'll likely have to commit to long-term maintenance.

Sun Protection Is Key

Protecting your skin from the sun is incredibly important. Sun exposure is a chief trigger factor for melasma development.

Regardless of the treatment you're using, if you're not protecting your skin from the sun, you will not see a great improvement of your melasma.

If you're not already using a daily sunscreen product, now is the time to start. Choose a sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher, and apply it daily. Ideally, you should wear sunscreen 365 days a year, even on cloudy, rainy, or cold days, and even if you don't spend much time outdoors. With melasma, just a small amount of sun exposure can darken it.

For those days you are spending long periods of time outside, reapply sunscreen frequently. Also, consider wearing a hat or spending as much time as possible in the shade.

Even after treatment works and melasma has faded, you'll need to continue strict sun protection. Many people experience melasma returning completely after just a few hours in the sun.

To help your skin respond to other forms of treatment you may be using, it's best to plan on using sunscreen as part of your daily skincare routine. An added benefit is that you'll also be protecting your skin from photoaging and skin cancer.

Home Remedies

In general, home remedies aren't incredibly effective at improving melasma. A few alternative remedies, like turmeric and aloe vera, have shown at least some success at improving melasma. However, there's not enough info to recommend aloe or turmeric as melasma treatments, and conventional treatments work faster and grant better end results.

Other home remedies may actually make melasma worse. Don't apply things like lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, raw onion, or garlic to your skin. These highly acidic ingredients can irritate your skin, which can lead to darkening of the very spots you're trying to lighten. Lemon also is a photosensitizer, so it makes your skin much more susceptible to sun damage.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

Over-the-counter skincare products and cosmeceuticals that contain brightening or exfoliating ingredients can be of some help if your melasma is minor. You can add these to your daily skincare routine, but be prepared for a wait. Melasma takes a long time to fade; you won't see improvement for several months.

Some helpful ingredients to look for:

Prescriptions

The darker the melasma is, in comparison to your normal skin tone, the more difficult it is to treat. In this case, prescription medication is going to give you better results than OTC options.

Hydroquinone

This had been the mainstay of melasma treatment for decades. Hydroquinone is a topical medication that works by breaking down melanin in the skin.

This is a controversial ingredient though, as some question its safety citing potential carcinogenic effects. Other studies have found no link between hydroquinone and cancer in human beings. High-percentage hydroquinone products can cause permanent loss of skin color (hypopigmentation) and in rare cases, darkening and thickening of the skin (ochronosis).

This controversy has led some countries to ban hydroquinone when used as a bleaching agent (although it still can be used in lower percentages in other cosmetic products). The United States Food and Drug Administration briefly considered banning the ingredient in 2006.

The general consensus among dermatologists is that hydroquinone is safe when used appropriately, although you should know that there are some dermatologists that disagree. The ingredient is usually very effective, which is why some people may risk the side effects to use it.

If your dermatologist prescribes hydroquinone to treat your melasma, make sure you use it as directed and don't be afraid to ask questions about your treatment.

Make sure to discuss any potential side effects you experience if you are using hydroquinone and to never use this substance outside of a doctor's supervision.

Topical Corticosteroids

Topical corticosteroids, also known as steroid creams, are prescribed for many skin issues because they're anti-inflammatory. They also have mild skin lightening effects. For melasma, topical corticosteroids aren't very effective on their own so you'll also be prescribed another topical treatment to be used along with them.

Tretinoin

Tretinoin is better known by brand names like Retin-A and Renova. A derivative of vitamin-A, tretinoin works by speeding up cell turnover, sloughing off old skin cells and stimulating the production of new. Although tretinoin is a powerhouse for improving signs of aging (fine lines and wrinkles, uneven skin tone, age spots, and rough skin) and acne, it's not incredibly effective for melasma when used alone.

However, tretinoin is effective when used long-term as a maintenance cream.

Triple Combination Cream

Sold as the brand Tri-Luma, this medication is a blend of tretinoin, corticosteroid, and hydroquinone. It gives you the benefits of the aforementioned medications in one cream. This treatment does work faster than using any one treatment alone, and it can improve even severe melasma.

The drawback of a triple combination cream is that it is more likely to cause skin irritation and it can't be used long-term to keep melasma away.

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is another skin lightening agent. Like tretinoin, azelaic acid speeds up cell turnover and smooths the skin. It evens out your skin tone, is fairly gentle, and can be used long term. It is often used as an alternative to hydroquinone.

Tranexamic Acid

This drug is not used as often to treat melasma but is becoming more common. Tranexamic acid is an oral medication that inhibits melanin production. It's not an approved melasma treatment and is used off-label. It's not recommended as a first-line treatment for melasma, but may be prescribed in certain situations when other treatments aren't working.

Specialist-Driven Procedures

There are also in-office procedures that your dermatologist can do to treat melasma. These are good options if topical treatments aren't well working for you, if your melasma is moderate to severe, or if you simply want a jump-start to treatment.

Most professional procedures should be used as an add-on treatment, and not necessarily a solo treatment, for melasma.

The biggest issue with pro procedures used to treat pigmentation problems is that the procedures themselves can trigger hyperpigmentation development. Complexions that are prone to melasma are also very prone to hyperpigmentation caused by these treatments, so it becomes a catch-22.

Your dermatologist will let you know if any of these procedures are a good treatment choice for you:

Treatment Tips During Pregnancy

For melasma that develops during pregnancy, there is some good news. This type of melasma often fades away, with some completely disappearing within a year or so after giving birth. Even if it doesn't disappear, it generally fades considerably.

If you're currently pregnant, your doctor will likely take a wait-and-see approach before trying any type of treatment. Many of the medications used to treat melasma are not safe to use during pregnancy.

Wait a few months after delivery, and if it hasn't faded to your liking by then you may choose to start treatment. Until then, keep using sunscreen throughout your pregnancy and beyond to limit melasma development.

A Word From Verywell

Treatment for melasma can be challenging. Fading of hyperpigmentation takes a long time, and it's fairly common for the pigmentation to return even after treatment. In some cases, it's more realistic to think more in terms of lightening and fading the discolorations rather than completely erasing them.

Whichever treatment you use, remember that sun protection must be used daily. With consistent, long-term use of treatment and some help from skincare professionals, you can achieve considerable improvement of melasma.

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