Understanding Melasma: Its Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

The skin is the largest organ of the human body. It's the simplest organ to observe and critique over time, as any changes to the skin are quite noticeable. If you've noticed that patchy sections have appeared on your skin over the years, melasma might be the culprit. Learn as much as possible about this condition so that you can treat it accordingly.

1. Defining Melasma

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) defines melasma as a common skin disorder. Areas of the skin might suddenly turn color:
  • Light to dark brown
  • Blue-gray 
The condition can also arise as freckles instead of patches. Among clinical professionals, it's been referred to as chloasma or the "mask of pregnancy." Melasma often coincides with pregnancy as a side effect of hormonal changes.
Melasma can be subtle or obvious as the skin changes over time. Every affected person will experience melasma in a unique way. In fact, it may be so subtle that writing it off as aging spots is possible. In contrast, large patches can appear with remarkable speed in other people. Ideally, melasma should be diagnosed by a dermatologist.

2. Identifying the Symptoms

Melasma doesn't have a long list of symptoms. In fact, skin discoloration is the main symptom, and patches can appear in a number of areas.
Most people who have melasma will see patchy skin across the center of the face, reports Merck Manual. Patches may even be symmetrical and occur on both sides of the cheeks.
Melasma may produce discoloration in these specific areas:
  • Upper lip
  • Cheeks

  • Nose

  • Forehead 
Keep in mind that this condition tends to limit its spread to the facial region only. Finding melasma on the arms or neck isn't as common, and if discoloration is found on other areas of the body, another condition may be in play.

3. Understanding Melasma as a Benign Condition

It's understandable to be concerned about melasma if the discoloration has never occurred before. This condition isn't harmful or an indication of skin cancer. The patchy areas don't even hurt.
An issue arises, however, if the cause of the patchy skin isn't diagnosed by a doctor. An area thought to be melasma may in fact be cancerous. Visiting a doctor to verify the condition is key. Once it's diagnosed as melasma, a treatment plan can be put into place.
Doctors continue to learn about melasma and its association with other ailments. According to the Journal of Skin and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, melasma has been linked to certain thyroid disorders. Your doctor can look at every angle of this condition in order to determine whether you have any associated issues to address.

4. Uncovering the Mental Effects

Knowing that melasma is a benign condition may appease some people who deal with the patchy areas. However, this ailment is frustrating on an emotional level. Because the patches arise on the face, self-esteem is often negatively affected. People want to hide their patches with makeup and other things.
It's important to note that this condition can suddenly arise and just as suddenly disappear. In other cases, melasma becomes a chronic issue. Speaking with your doctor about the physical and mental effects can improve your quality of life. A professional can guide you toward the best treatment and care in order to minimize the patchy issues.

5. Discovering Who's at Risk

Women are more likely to develop melasma than men. Scientists continue to research the reasons behind this trend. Genetics appear to play a part when it comes to risk factors, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Additionally, people who have darker skin tones tend to develop melasma. Hispanic people living in sunny areas, such as the tropics, typically deal with this condition. If you have family members who've dealt with patchy skin, your odds of developing the condition are relatively high.

6. Explaining the Causes

Your skin is a complex set of layers that protect the inner tissues from the outside world. There are several reasons why melasma occurs in certain people rather than in others.
Take a look at the outer layer of the skin, or epidermis. This layer contains pigment cells called melanocytes. When they produce too much melanin, a darkened area appears on the skin. Scientists believe that irregular melanin production causes melasma.
Several factors might trigger the melanocytes to act out of the ordinary. Hormonal fluctuations, excessive sunlight exposure, genetic predisposition and even prescription drugs might create the perfect storm that results in patchy skin.
For many people, the causes tend to be a mixture of factors. There's not usually a single cause. Every person will have a unique reaction to environmental elements and genetic markers.

7. Treating the Condition

A dermatologist has an arsenal of different products that can treat melasma. Remember that there's no real cure, but managing the condition is possible.
The AAD lists several topicals that might be prescribed:
  • Tretinoin

  • Hydroquinone

  • Azelaic acid and other medications
Your professional might prescribe a mixture of different topicals in order to find the right combination for you. The melasma may fade during treatment, but getting rid of the condition altogether might be tough.
Remind yourself that melasma might be temporary for you. Only time will tell if the patches will fade away. Discuss any over-the-counter products used alongside your prescriptions with your doctor. These products can complement each other when safely mixed together.

8. Revealing Harmful Products

Listening to your doctor and trying both medically approved and at-home products are the best ways to treat melasma. Keep in mind, however, that there are a host of different products in the marketplace that are questionable. They haven't been tested or refined for widespread use.
As an educated consumer, avoid these types of products:
  • Injections
  • Oral solutions 
No over-the-counter injectables or oral products are effective or safe to use. For safety's sake, select topical products with a good track record. Trying the latest trends that can produce questionable reactions can lead to a worsening of the condition. In fact, there may be harmful side effects that are worse than the patches themselves.
Stay safe with topicals and suggestions from your doctor.

9. Taking Control With Home Care

Harvard University points out that home care can be incredibly effective against further melasma flare-ups. Start with a gentle cleanser applied in the morning and evening. Follow it up with a toning serum that includes vitamins C and E.
A good moisturizer is the key to balanced skin. The tissue cannot be too dry or too oily. When the body doesn't need to react to imbalanced skin, melasma might fade to a certain degree.
Consider a skincare package that includes these products, from cleansers to moisturizers. Most manufacturers design their products around certain concerns, and melasma is so common that a product line geared toward its control is your best bet.

10. Preventing Melasma

There are a few suggestions for melasma prevention. The best way to avoid patchy skin is by being sun smart. Avoid being in the sun for a long time without sunscreen. When you do venture outdoors, select a sunscreen with blocking ingredients, such as:
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc
The sun's damaging rays cannot move past these elements, which protects the skin from melasma patches.
Consider nourishing the body from the inside with a multivitamin. Consume plenty of foods that include vitamin D, which is known to boost the skin's strength and longevity. Simple measures that keep the skin calm and balanced can help a melasma condition. There may not be an instant cure, but whole-body care can make a difference.
A mixture of home care and professional advice is the best strategy when it comes to managing melasma. Remind yourself that these patchy areas are harmless to your health. A little bit of care and attention to the patches will help them fade over time.