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Melasma vs Hyperpigmentation: Are They The Same?
We are all quite familiar with pigmentation, even if we might be unclear on what exactly it is, we roughly have an idea of it. The technical term for pigmentation is hyperpigmentation because pigmentation itself isn’t an issue, in fact, we need pigmentation for our bodies to even have color! But it is when there is an overproduction of pigment that discolored spots and patches begin to occur, and that is when hyperpigmentation happens. Hyperpigmentation is essentially an overproduction of pigment, caused by hyperactivity in the pigment-producing cells.
You may have come across the term “melasma”, but probably aren’t familiar with what melasma is. Melasma is a skin condition that most of us are unfamiliar with, and it might sound like some super scary incurable skin disease. Actually, melasma is a lot more common than we think and it affects quite a lot of people! It is not incurable and neither is it a disease, it is actually one of the many forms of hyperpigmentation. This article will tell you all you need to know about melasma, its causes, and how you can treat it through a wide range of solutions!
But first, how does hyperpigmentation happen?
All types of hyperpigmentation are caused by a pigment called melanin. Melanin is the name of the pigment that gives our skin color, and it can be found in pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. Melanin is really important as it is meant to help protect our skin. It is produced when the skin is exposed to the sun, acting as a natural sunscreen as it absorbs UV rays.
That’s why we get tanner under the sun! However, when there is an overproduction of melanin, this causes hyperpigmentation, which results in the skin taking on a darker tone. Overproduction of melanin results in deposits of the excess melanin in the skin, which can clump up to form dark patches. The size of these patches can range from small to large, and in different shapes as well.
What causes hyperpigmentation?
There is a range of causes for hyperpigmentation.
Sun exposure causes a lot of damage done to our skin, and it can manifest in hyperpigmentation. When our skin is exposed to harmful UV rays and visible light, this triggers the production of melanin by the melanocytes to protect our skin against these rays. When the sun is strong, this results in more melanin being produced and hence can lead to patches of darker skin. That’s why an integral part of freckles skin care is sun protection.
The aging process also exacerbates hyperpigmentation. When we age, the number of melanocytes starts to fall but they become bigger and start to increase melanin production. Our skin also starts to thin out and get more translucent as we lose collagen and elasticity in the skin, thus the signs of aging in face may begin with the look of patches becoming more obvious and emphasized.
Inflammation, Injuries and Acne
Inflammation, injuries, and acne can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. After an injury to the skin, severe acne, or skin conditions like eczema, darker areas in the skin might appear due to the skin’s response to inflammation or injury. To heal, the melanocytes produce more melanin and cause patches of the skin to darken. A darker patch of skin is likely to be seen in the area which was affected. The more severe the acne was, the darker the spot will be. Imagine asking, “why is my face so oily,” followed by a resulting breakout that lead to scars!
Finally, hormonal changes result in melasma that mostly affects women. It is often caused by pregnancy or hormonal contraception. We will go into more details about melasma next!
What causes melasma?
Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation caused by changes in hormonal activity. It is more often found on the face and occurs in patches of greyish or brown skin. You know you have it when you see brownish or greyish patches on your face, with the more commonly-affected areas of the face being the forehead, bridge of the nose, and cheeks.
Melasma occurs mostly in women, with over 90% of affected people being females, but it can also affect males. Melasma is usually caused by changes in hormone levels and activity in the body. Pregnant women tend to see it occur during pregnancy, which is how it has earned its name as the “mask of pregnancy”, as changing hormones cause melanin to be produced more rapidly.
It also might occur after taking birth control pills. It can affect women and girls of all ages, and women who develop it in their 20s and 30s might see a persistence for decades as the melasma might recur. It doesn’t pose any health risks, melasma can be distressing for those who have it since it may make the skin look tarnished.
How can I treat melasma?
With all hyperpigmentation, you can certainly treat it to reduce the look of it! The good news is that unlike other forms of hyperpigmentation like dark spots, melasma can go away naturally especially after the hormonal activity returns to normal. Melasma often stops after pregnancy or after you get off the contraceptive pills causing it. Melasma also tends to occur in lighter shades, making it a little less obvious. If your melasma is induced by hormonal activity, consult your doctor if you recently went on a new hormonal pill as it might be the cause, and consider alternatives to prevent melasma from occurring again.
If that doesn’t work, there are definitely other medically reviewed solutions you can try to lighten dark patches!
1. Try a hydroquinone serums or cream
Hydroquinone is one of the most popular and effective hyperpigmentation treatments. It is even prescribed to address black under eyes. It is very strong and is limited to a percentage of 2% for commercial products and a maximum of 4% for prescription-grade products. It’s potency also means that a higher amount would cause irritation, dryness, and even burning should you be allergic to it.
Hydroquinone works through a biological process that curbs the activity of an enzyme known as tyrosinase, which is necessary for the production of melanin. When the level of tyrosinase production falls, the production of melanin will also fall. You should see results in 8-12 weeks of using hydroquinone topical spot treatments. It is best to use it with the supervision of a dermatologist.
2. Incorporate retinoids into your skincare
Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that help to speed up the rate of skin cell turnover. It is a common chemical exfoliant that many use to help rejuvenate and renew the skin. It also is used as under eye wrinkle treatment.
Retinoids can be found in a few forms, with the most popular being retinol and tretinoin. Retinoids are also excellent for preventing acne and slowing down skin aging. The only downside to retinoids is that they make the skin quite sensitive to the sun and you might experience some itching and irritation during the first week or so. You can get retinoids commercially or get a prescription from a dermatologist for a product with higher strength.
3. Limit sun exposure and always wear sun protection
Of course, the best, cheapest, and easiest advice that any dermatologist will give you is to stay out of the sun. It’s that simple. While we debate on the difference between freckles vs sunspots, the point remains that the sun is a huge factor for both. If you stay out of the sun, you will be exposing yourself less to the harmful radicals that cause the overproduction of melanin in the first place.
You should always wear broad-spectrum sunscreen every day and stay out of the sun between 12 and 2 pm which is when the sun is hottest. Even if you already experience melasma, the sun will only aggravate it and make the patches darker.
Melasma is not harmful but it can be distressing if you experience it suddenly. Don’t freak out, just schedule a visit to the dermatologist to diagnose melasma so you can safely and effectively lighten your darkened skin!
Your dermatologist will also be able to carry out procedures to treat hyperpigmentation and dermal melasma like chemical peels and laser treatments. What’s more, they’ll also be able to diagnose any skin disorders you might have that might be causing melasma and hyperpigmentation.
Stay tuned for more skincare topics, such as “what are pores in your skin,” “how to lighten skin at home,” and more.
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