Skin discoloration or hyperpigmentation may occur for a number of reasons, including sun damage and changes in hormone levels. Regardless of the underlying cause, the condition is referred to by dermatologists as melasma and it is one of the most common skin health concerns. Melasma is a skin condition that leads to brown or gray spots on the skin, typically on the face. Luckily, this condition is not dangerous. But, if it dramatically impacts your appearance, you may want to work with a dermatologist to achieve a more even skin tone. Keep reading to learn a little more about melasma, and don’t forget that the skin health experts at U.S. Dermatology Partners are here to help if you have questions about your options for reducing skin discoloration.
Skin Discoloration Basics
Below, we’ve compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about melasma to help you better understand this common skin condition.
What is Melasma?
Melasma is a skin condition that causes large dark spots (usually brown or gray in color) to develop. Melasma typically develops in areas that are repeatedly exposed to sunlight, most commonly on the face, but can also occur on the neck or forearms.
What Causes Melasma?
The skin is your body’s largest organ, and it’s made up of several different types of cells. Melanocytes are the skin cells that produce color. When these cells produce too much color, melasma occurs. While there is not one clear cause of melasma, some triggers to melanocyte overproduction are sun exposure, high energy light (AKA Blue Light) from screens, hormonal fluctuations, and the use of certain skin care products.
Who Gets Melasma?
Anyone can develop melasma, but it is much more common among people of color who already have more active melanocyte cells compared with lighter skinned people. Women make up 90% of melasma cases, and this condition is most common for women who are pregnant or experiencing other periods of hormonal fluctuation such as puberty or menopause). If you have a family member who has melasma, you are much more likely to develop the condition yourself.
Do I Have Melasma?
Melasma has no adverse physical side effects other than the change in the skin’s appearance. If you notice darker colored blotches (usually brown or gray) on the face, neck, arms, or hands, you may have melasma. In some cases, this discoloration will go away on its own, but for some, melasma is permanent without treatment.
Skin Discoloration Treatment Options
While melasma does not adversely impact overall health, many people do choose to seek treatment because of the noticeable appearance of skin discoloration, which most often develops in conspicuous areas on the face, neck, or arms. Before your dermatologist recommends a treatment for melasma, we need to carefully examine the area to ensure there is no other, more serious skin condition underlying the discoloration. In most cases, we simply need to complete a visual examination to diagnosis the condition, but if we’re concerned there’s another issue involved, we may have a section of the affected skin biopsied. Following diagnosis, we can partner with you to create a personalized plan to reduce the skin discoloration.
Some commonly used treatment options to reduce the appearance of skin discoloration include:
You can find hydroquinone in prescription and over the counter versions. It is applied directly to the discolored skin, and it comes in lotions, gels, or liquids. Over time, the hydroquinone will lighten the skin’s pigment in the areas where it’s applied.
Tretinoin & Corticosteroids
These two medicines are typically used in conjunction with hydroquinone, and you may even be prescribed an ointment that contains all three ingredients. Tretinoins and corticosteroids enhance the effects of hydroquinone and may accelerate the process and reduce treatment time.
Topical Dicarboxylic Acid Medications
Additionally, your dermatologist may prescribe a dicarboxylic acid (usually azelaic or kojic acid) to exfoliate, removing old skin cells, revealing healthy new skin below and improving the impact of other melasma treatments.
Chemical Peel & Microdermabrasion
Like applying topical acids, a chemical peel or microdermabrasion can speed up the impact of melasma treatments by removing the top layers of skin cells and revealing the healthy, new skin below. In many cases, our dermatologist will perform these treatments, and you can rely on them to deliver predictable results in complete comfort and safety.
Managing Skin Discoloration
If you’re prone to melasma, you can take some simple steps to manage the condition and reduce your skin discoloration. By far the easiest way to manage melasma is to utilize sunscreen and take sun protection steps. We encourage patients to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher each day to any part of the body that will be exposed to sunlight. If you are going to be out in the sun for a long time, make sure to reapply sunscreen every few hours and take regular breaks from sun exposure by seeking shade periodically. You can also wear hats, sunglasses, and sun protective clothing to prevent sun damage that can lead to melasma.
Some skin care products can be irritating to the skin, which, in turn, can lead to an increased risk for melasma. You may also want to avoid treatments like waxing or sugar scrubs that may cause inflammation and irritation that increases the appearance of skin discoloration. If you notice discoloration after using a new skin care product, discontinue use. Talk to your dermatologist about products that may be better suited for your skin and help you avoid melasma. If you regularly struggle with skin discoloration, our dermatologist can also help you find great products to keep your skin tone even and free from dark spots.
In some cases, melasma is temporary and will clear up on its own without any treatment. Skin discoloration that occurs during pregnancy is the most common example. Most women’s skin will clear up after delivery, so we typically don’t recommend treatment for this condition during pregnancy. A dermatologist can help you determine the underlying cause of melasma and find the best treatments or preventive care steps to keep your skin looking great.
Is it Time to Visit a Dermatologist?
If you’re unhappy with your appearance and over the counter treatments for skin discoloration have been ineffective, a dermatologist can help you reduce the appearance of melasma. U.S. Dermatology Partners has multiple locations nationwide, and our team will be happy to help you address skin discoloration or any other skin health concerns you may have. If you’re ready to get started working with us, complete our simple online form. One of our local team members will be in touch soon to schedule your appointment.
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