Melasma is a common skin condition that causes dark brown spots and patches. It is caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, certain hormones and medications, exposure to the sun, and other high sources of heat. While it is difficult to treat, melasma can be prevented by avoiding the sun’s harmful UV rays and other extreme heat sources.
If you or someone you love suffers from melasma, you know the toll it can take on self-confidence and feeling comfortable in your own skin. Unfortunately, this skin condition is as difficult to treat as it is common. In fact, even conservative estimations hold that melasma affects 10-25% of women and upwards of 5% of men. And treatment can be an uphill battle.
So what’s with this skin condition that causes dark brown patches on the face, and sometimes the forearms and neck? How and why does it develop? Is there a cure? And can it even be prevented? These questions and more stir in the minds of those who bear the burden of this troubling condition. But not all hope is lost! Let’s get to the bottom of melasma.
What Causes Melasma?
According to Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD — a board-certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School — melasma occurs in all skin colors, but is more commonly seen in darker skin types (take the Fitzpatrick skin type test). The condition is caused by a number of factors, including genetics, exposure to hormones like pregnancy or certain medications such as birth control, and exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
In a recent article published in the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, Dr. Crutchfield III expressed a new concern regarding the cause of the condition: “Emerging research has also shown that melasma can be caused by (excessive) heat exposure. This heat exposure can be from cooking, relaxing in a sauna, or just sitting in the direct sun (with sunscreen on) or being outdoors during periods of extreme heat.”
And it all happens at the cellular level. When skin cells called melanocytes become stimulated and sensitized by the sun or exposure to heat, they release melanin that causes the skin to darken. “I consider melasma to be a very rapid, uneven suntan,” said Dr. Crutchfield III.
Melasma Prevention and Treatment
The best way to prevent this skin condition is to avoid and/or protect yourself from the sun and other heat sources. This is best practice any way you cut it, as extensive exposure to skin-damaging UV rays can cause a host of negative symptoms and diseases — not the least of which includes photoaging, and in some cases, skin cancer. If melasma is a concern to you, think twice about exposing your skin to high-heat sources like the oven, hot tubs, and saunas.
“In a minority of cases,” says Dr. Crutchfield III, “the removal of the causative hormone (birth-control pills) may improve the condition. In most of cases of melasma, treatment becomes a lifelong battle.” Dermatologists can treat most patients with topical medicines, facial peels, and/or specialised lasers. But for all-too-many who suffer from melasma, the ongoing treatments turn into a chronic battle that spans many years and often decades.
Perhaps most frustrating is that melasma can return after successful treatment. This highlights just how important it is to remain vigilant and proactive when it comes to sun protection and avoiding extreme heat sources. So while this skin condition is “notoriously difficult to treat,” according to Dr. Crutchfield III, there is hope yet for some, so long as a responsible and mindful approach is taken when it comes to exposure to the sun and other elements.