What is melasma?
Melasma is an acquired skin problem of hyperpigmentation, frequently faced by women in their reproductive years. The condition is characterized by hyperpigmentation primarily on the face, so we may observe irregular brown or blue-grey macules on the face. Common areas where the brown patches appear are cheeks, nose, forehead, jaw and the chin.
How prevalent is the disorder?
While melasma occurs in all ethnic and population groups, studies have shown that there is a higher prevalence among more pigmented phenotypes. These include Asians, Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern. In the Americas, those who suffer from melasma mostly live in intertropical areas where exposure to UV rays are greater.
What are the different types of hyperpigmentation?
You may be doing your research diligently to find out more about melasma, but there are different types of pigmentation, and they are not all the same. Apart from melasma, your face could be suffering from freckles, sun spots or age spots. Freckles, or ephelides, are small, flat and brown marks that are prevalent in childhood. Sunspots, or solar lentigo, only surfaces in our late twenties and can increase in size and number with increasing sun exposure. Age spots, or seborrheic keratosis, is actually not a form of pigmentation, but a non-cancerous skin growth that kicks in with age.
Melasma, on the other hand, can be identified with a greyish-brown discolouration, at times in the shape of a butterfly.
What causes melasma?
While the cause of the disorder remains unknown, current research point towards sex hormones and sun exposure as the greatest culprits.
These brown patches appear on our face as when there is an excessive production of a pigment called melanin. UV radiation induces the increase in melanin production to protect the skin from sun damage. This causes the development of pigmentation to take place on the skin. A leading cause of melasma is excessive sunlight exposure.
Hormones can also be another cause of melasma. You may develop this condition at the start of your pregnancy or if you are on birth control pills. Pregnant women experience higher levels of increased progesterone, estrogen and melanocyte-stimulating hormones. Melanocytes are cells that produce melanin in your skin.
Other causes can be due to certain medications, scented or deodorant soaps, or your toiletries. These products may contain an ingredient that causes a phototoxic reaction that can trigger melasma.
What are the types of melasma?
There are three types of melasma: epidermal, dermal and mixed.
The epidermal layer affects the outermost surface of the skin, and the easiest type to treat. It can be identified by the presence of excessive levels of melanin in that layer. Patches will be a darker brown colour, with a defined outline.
The dermal layer will affect a deeper layer of the skin beneath the superficial layer, and we can recognise it by the occurrence of melanophages throughout the dermis. Melanophages are cells that ingest melanin. The dermal layer can be more deep-rooted, and may not respond well to treatment. For this layer, patches have a less defined outline, with light brown or bluish colour.
A mixed condition of melasma would be having both the epidermal and dermal types, and improvements on the condition can be expected with treatment.
How to treat melasma?
The response of melasma to treatment can be slower if the condition has been present for a longer time.
Excessive sun exposure leads to the deposition of melanin cells within the dermis and can persist long term. Coming into contact with UV radiation will deepen the pigmentation as it will activate the production of more melanin, causing your brown patches to turn darker and harder to remove.
Generally, by including sun protection into your skin routine, hyperpigmentation can be resisted. With Singapore’s tropical weather, it is recommended to reapply sun protection every 2 hours with a broad-spectrum sunscreen having at least SPF 30. Consider bringing along sunglasses or a hat when you are outdoors.
For clinical treatments, consultation with a trained dermatologist is recommended. A proper diagnosis of melasma should be conducted, and screened if there are any underlying conditions that may require treatment.
Prescriptions may be given to inhibit the formation of melanin. Hydroquinone is a controlled ingredient that is frequently included in medications to treat melasma, as it allows lightening of the skin. A precise concentration of hydroquinone should be administered for treatment, and may be professionally managed so by your dermatologist.
Procedural treatments for melasma can also be considered, such as chemical peels and lasers. Expected efficacy of each treatment can vary depending on the severity of melasma, with topical combination therapies being one of the most effective treatments for hyperpigmentation.
Speak to your dermatologist for a tailored recovery experience.
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