By Dr. Dennis Gross
Skin can be so dramatic. You can treat it with plenty of TLC, buy the most lavish products, and still get left with reactions, breakouts, and hyperpigmentation (so rude). And what’s one of the main super pesky skincare conditions that make all your efforts feel wasted? Melasma. Luckily, those blotchy deeper tones on your face are more common than you think and as frustrating as it can be, it’s possible to handle.
But prior to buying some new products or calling up your derm, let’s start with the basics:
Melasma is a type of hyperpigmentation caused by hormones. This change in hormones causes the skin to produce excess melanin — the pigment that determines how dark your skin, hair, and eyes are. While melanin’s primary function is to protect skin from UV radiation (it’s kind of like your body’s built-in SPF), problems arise when your skin kicks into overdrive and produces too much. And that’s why those dark patches pop up on places like your forehead, cheeks, nose, chin, and upper lip. Ugh.
If this is a brand new problem, don’t sweat it; most women have their first encounter with melasma when starting birth control or during pregnancy. In fact, you’ve most likely heard it being referred to as the “pregnancy mask” or “mustache”. The tricky — and most frustrating — thing about it is how stubborn it can be is occasionally it’ll fade on its own, but in many cases, you’ll have to take these matters into your own hands (or your dermatologist’s). So how do you deal with melasma? I’ll lay it out for you.
Dealing with melasma calls for some tough love. The quickest and most effective way is through a professional laser treatment with a diligent at-home skincare routine. At my practice, I use IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) technology to treat sunspots and melasma. It works by targeting hyperpigmented or otherwise damaged skin cells with the use of specific intense light wavelengths.
As the light penetrates your skin, it’s converted into heat, which then destroys any hyperactive skin cells in the process and causes the pigmentation to disperse. Hyperpigmented spots will begin to rise to the surface of your skin and eventually flake off, leaving you with a much more consistent, smooth, and even complexion.
While IPL is a great option to tackle existing melanoma, it is important to note that it is not preventative. So, unfortunately, you can’t get the treatment done in hopes of keeping melasma away. Another thing you should keep in mind? You have to give your complexion plenty of love post-treatment in order to reap the benefits of the laser. If you don’t, it’s super easy for melasma to reappear. Here’s where that meticulous 10-step lineup of yours should come in.
If you’re dedicated to your routine and use the right products, you can lighten existing spots while preventing new ones from forming. You’ll want to do this by attacking from multiple angles, and use a variety of powerful products, too.
Exfoliation should be key in your routine. That’ll help remove the dead pigmented cells from the skin’s surface, stop melanin transfer in the middle skin layers, and prevent melanin production deep within the skin. You should also be searching for a few particular active ingredients the next time you go shopping.
There is no one “magic bullet” ingredient to accomplish all of these tasks, but you’ll find that products that combine active ingredients — like lactic acid, arbutin, vitamin C, and kojic acid — will become handy sidekicks in fighting melasma.
One last bit of advice? Sunscreen is everything (you know this!). Once you’ve treated melasma, it is crucial to stay out of the sun. Even the tiniest bit of exposure can make patches appear darker. Using a vitamin C serum with SPF is going to give you the best protection and prevent melasma from reappearing. Oh, and a super chic hat and large sunglasses won’t hurt either.