Hyperpigmentation and Melasma — What You Need to Know
Whether your pre-teen breakout left a scar or sun spots have started to develop as you age (don’t forget your sunscreen, people!), dark marks can creep up on your complexion. But if you’ve begun noticing hyperpigmentation and discoloration happening in relation to pregnancy or hormonal changes, it’s possible you could be dealing with a type of hyperpigmentation called melasma. Not sure what kind of discoloration you’re experiencing? Keep reading, because we consulted with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Robert Finney to help break things down.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Whether it’s the result of acne scarring from your teenage days or the aftermath of a skin condition like eczema, hyperpigmentation is known as anything that can leave a darkened discoloration on the surface of the skin. Another thing to note? This discoloration will typically become more pronounced with increased sun exposure. “Melanocytes, or pigment producing cells, that are on the skin and the epidermis can be increased with sun exposure,” says Dr. Finney. “As we get more sun exposure, the melanocytes produce more melanin and can cause further darkening of the skin.”
How Do I Know If My Hyperpigmentation Is Melasma?
Melasma is a subset that falls under the broader term of hyperpigmentation and is much more common in women than men. Dr. Finney explains that unlike post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which typically fades a few months to a year after the initial mark was formed, melasma is a chronic condition that can’t be cured — only managed. If you’re unsure what type of pigmentation you're experiencing, you can start by examining the shape of the mark. “Melasma tends to be less-well defined, whereas if you have pigmentation related to an acne mark, it should be in the exact same spot and roughly the same size as that acne was,” he says.
Another key difference between run-of-the-mill hyperpigmentation and melasma is the latter’s close relation to hormonal fluctuations. In fact, melasma has been called the mask of pregnancy. “Women who are on birth control pills are definitely at higher risk, and it has to with the hormone levels and shifts that come with pregnancy,” says Dr. Finney. He explains that the hormonal changes can make your skin more prone to developing marks on the skin.
Let’s Talk Treatment
If you’re trying to address post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or acne scars, consult with your dermatologist. He or she may suggest treatment options such as use of lasers, prescriptions and OTC topicals, including retinol and vitamin C serums, to help reduce the appearance of the marks. (Pro tip: If you need a new vitamin C serum, the Skincare.com editors love the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, which is made by our parent company, L’Oréal.)
“Hyperpigmentation isn’t necessarily permanent but scarring is — it can be improved over time, though,” says Dr. Finney. He explains that when dealing with scarred acne patients in particular, it’s important to address both managing the formation of acne that causes the scarring, as well as the scarring that already exists. Perhaps the most important step of skin care for people with melasma, however, is sun protection, which includes both staying in the shade or wearing hats as well as wearing sunscreen. “I prefer physical blockers because they’re going to reflect the sun as opposed to the chemical blockers,” says Dr. Finney.