Melasma, a skin condition that results in dark, discolored patches on the skin, is also known as chloasma, or the “mask of pregnancy,” since it often occurs in pregnant women. It is generally noticeable on the cheeks, nose, upper lip and forehead, and occasionally on the chest or arms. The patches, which are usually symmetrical, appear on both sides of the face.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 90 percent of people who develop melasma are women. The causes, however, are unknown. One theory is that the melanocytes, which produce skin color, are kicked into overdrive when the body experiences hormonal changes. Melasma is detected through a visual exam of the affected area. In order to rule out specific causes, a physician may also perform some tests, such as a Wood’s lamp examination, which allows doctors to check for bacterial and fungal infections.
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Sun exposure is another major cause of melasma. “UV rays can trigger the onset of melasma and worsen it in someone who already has it,” says Vancouver dermatologist Allison Sutton. Currently, there is no known way to prevent melasma, though flare-ups can be prevented by using sun protection.
“Less light exposure will hopefully lead to less melasma, fewer flare-ups and lighter hyper-pigmentation,” Sutton adds. Therefore, it is indispensable to use sunscreen daily, applying it every morning, regardless of what the weather is like, and reapplying it every two hours. Sutton recommends using 50 or 60 SPF.
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She also suggests wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses outside, as well as in the car since sitting by a window or taking a long car ride can result in overexposure to the sun. Dermatologists also recommend avoiding skincare products that irritate or inflame the skin, such as exfoliants. In addition, waxing or hair removal can aggravate melasma.
Treatment options during pregnancy are very limited, though sufferers can use concealer to cover up patches. Since prescribed topical medications, like retinoids and hydroquinone, haven’t been tested on pregnant women, it is best to avoid these products during pregnancy. Sutton advises pregnant women to use plant-based products instead, such as products with vitamin C, arbutin, glycolic acid, soybean extract and licorice extract.
After giving birth, women can use prescription and plant-based treatments or chemical peels to reduce the dark patches, though many women will experience improvement naturally after pregnancy when hormones return to normal. Women who have suffered from melasma have a higher chance of a reoccurrence, therefore, dermatologists don’t recommend investing in expensive treatments until after they have finished having children.