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By Shinjita Das, MD, Instructor in Dermatology;Assistant in Dermatology, Harvard Medical School;Massachusetts General Hospital

Melasma is dark brown patches of pigmentation that appear on sun-exposed areas of the skin, usually the face.

  • Patchy areas of dark color appear on the skin.

  • Doctors usually base the diagnosis on an examination of the skin.

  • Treatment includes sun protection and skin-bleaching creams.

Melasma is most likely caused by an overproduction of the brown pigment melanin. Melanin is produced by specialized skin cells called melanocytes (see Overview of Skin Pigment). Too much pigment in the skin is called hyperpigmentation. Melasma tends to appear during pregnancy (called the mask of pregnancy) and in women who take oral contraceptives, but it can occur in anyone. The disorder is most common among and lasts longer in people with dark skin. Ten percent of cases occur in women who are not pregnant and in dark-skinned men.

People who spend a lot of time in the sun are at increased risk of melasma. Other risk factors include autoimmune thyroid disorders and drugs that make some people's skin more sensitive to the effects of sunlight.

Symptoms of Melasma

Irregular, patchy areas of dark color appear on the skin, usually on both sides of the face. The pigmentation most often occurs in the center of the face and on the cheeks, forehead, temples, upper lip, and nose. Sometimes people have the patches only on the sides of the face. Rarely, melasma appears on the forearms. The patches do not itch or hurt and are only of cosmetic concern.

Diagnosis of Melasma

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Wood light examination

Doctors base the diagnosis of melasma on an examination of the skin.

Doctors may do a Wood light examination to differentiate hyperpigmentation in the upper layers of the skin from other skin disorders.

Treatment of Melasma

  • Sun protection

  • Skin-bleaching creams

  • Sometimes chemical peels

People with melasma can use sunscreens on the dark patches and avoid sun exposure to prevent the condition from getting worse (see Prevention of Sunburn).

Only if hyperpigmentation affects the upper layers of the skin will treatments applied to the skin be effective. Skin-bleaching creams containing hydroquinone, tretinoin, or azelaic acid can help lighten the dark patches. Prescription retinoid and corticosteroid creams may be given along with the bleaching creams. Hydroquinone should be used only under the guidance of a doctor, because long-term use can actually cause permanent hyperpigmentation, called exogenous ochronosis.

Doctors may try chemical peels with glycolic acid or trichloroacetic acid on people who do not respond to skin-bleaching creams.

Laser treatment may become more common in the future.

During and after treatment, people must be strict about sun protection because treatments make the skin prone to sunburn. Also, even a few hours of sun exposure can cause hyperpigmentation to begin again in the treated areas, which would undo the results of months of treatment.

If the skin is protected from the sun, melasma often fades after pregnancy or after an oral contraceptive is stopped. In men, melasma rarely fades.

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