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Some call it “the mask of pregnancy”. Others say melasma or chloasma. But it’s all hormonally induced hyperpigmentation, and it shows up as spots or splotches of discoloured skin especially on the cheeks and around the mouth. And, left untreated, they may take ages to fade.

For a woman between the ages of 20 and 50, and especially new mothers, developing these dark sections of skin can be devastating. It seems unsightly and impossible to cover up. It drains your confidence and impacts you socially. You feel like everyone’s staring at this weird, dark “mask” of skin across your cheeks and nose.

But, what most people once thought of as the “pregnancy mask” – because it’s so much more visibly pronounced in women after giving birth – is actually quite common. Up to 70% of people can experience melasma in some form at any point in their lives. And that’s because it’s triggered by fluctuations in hormones.

What causes melasma?

Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation. There are three types, namely sun-induced hyperpigmentation, post-inflammatory/scarring hyperpigmentation and the internal type, induced by hormones. And, in broad strokes, they are all caused by something that triggers specialised skin cells, called melanocytes, to produce excess amounts of the skin pigment melanin.

Melanin is what gives your skin it’s colour. All skins contain melanin, just in varying amounts. The more melanin in your skin, the darker it appears. But, usually, your skin tone is roughly the same throughout your skin. With hyperpigmentation, some parts of skin produce too much melanin, and you end up with discoloured spots and splotches.

With hormonal pigmentation (melasma) in particular, it’s fluctuations in your hormones that cause the skin to produce excess melanin.

Melanin is your body’s natural UV-defence mechanism. The amount of melanin in your skin is finely tuned to block just enough UV radiation from the sun to help prevent dangerous skin damage and cancer while letting in enough to help your body produce vital vitamin D.

But the problem is that the hormone oestrogen affects your skin’s UV tolerance. Fluctuations in oestrogen (which is a sex hormone and thus very important for reproduction) can play havoc with your body’s melanin production. That’s why melasma occurs: the hormonal changes that come with life stages and events such as fertility, puberty and pregnancy can instruct parts of your skin to start producing too much melanin. Even taking contraceptives changes the balance of hormones in your body, so it can cause melasma, too.

But, though melasma can be stubborn, and you may feel very frustrated by it, the good news is that it is treatable.

Treating melasma

Like with any type of hyperpigmentation, avoiding the sun and focusing on sun protection is one of the first and most important steps to treating melasma. And then, naturally, you’ll need to strip away the existing discoloured skin through effective home and professional treatments that are designed to treat hyperpigmentation.

In terms of your daily skincare regimen, Lamelle Research Laboratories’ Luminesce range was specifically created to combat hyperpigmentation. It contains a complete product range, from sunscreen and day and night creams to a specialised cleanser, all finely tuned to help treat hyperpigmentation.

But, since the cause is hormonal, you’ll have to treat this underlying cause, too, for the treatment to be fully effective. Some women choose to simply stop taking the contraceptive, for example. But, not all causes are this easily remedied (if you’ve just given birth, for example, there’s no quick fix for the pigment-related changes happening in your body). In cases like these, antioxidant-rich and vitamin D-enriched products like Lamelle’s Ovelle D3 have proven remarkably effective in lessening the appearance of hormonal pigmentation.

It’s also important to be aware of anything that can affect your hormones or trigger new flare-ups.

7 Surprising facts about melasma

We recently looked at surprising factors that can worsen hyperpigmentation in general, which included heat, stress, poor blood flow and a lack of sleep. But, there are also a few surprises when it comes to melasma specifically. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Any hormonal supplements may affect melasma

Just like the contraceptive pill, any supplement or medication that directly or indirectly impacts hormones and hormone levels may worsen hyperpigmentation.

2. Genetics play an important role

It seems that most melasma sufferers are genetically predisposed to the condition. Studies in America have shown that with up to 70% of melasma sufferers there is a historic familial link. A similar study found the same in 55% of pregnant Iranian women with melasma. So, it seems that if a parent or grandparent suffered from melasma, you’re likely to present with it, too.

3. Men are affected, too

Considering most people traditionally associated melasma with pregnancy, we overlook how many men also suffer from the condition. Many American studies have focused only on men, also finding that melasma is hereditary in males.

4. It’s very common in olive skin

Melasma often presents in Fitzpatrick skin types III to IV. It seems to be especially common in light brown and olive skin – renowned for their robustness and resilience to UV damage. Studies have shown that melasma can be quite prominent among people with skin types we generally associate with the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and Hispanic America.

5. It may be linked to your thyroid

Studies have shown that melasma could be indicative of a thyroid problem. Many melasma sufferers also present with a thyroid autoimmunity, so it’s important to see a doctor early – treating the thyroid just might go a long way toward remedying the hyperpigmentation.

6. A zinc deficiency can make it worse

Melasma is often triggered by an abundance of oestrogen. And excess oestrogen can lead to a deficiency in zinc, magnesium and B vitamins. It’s a vicious cycle though: these deficiencies may, in turn, exasperate the production of oestrogen. Thus, many melasma treatments include a zinc supplement – even topical – to break the cycle.

7. Don’t underestimate the value of sun protection

As we’ve mentioned earlier, sun protection is a key factor in all types of hyperpigmentation. The sun may not be the root cause with melasma, but UV exposure will make it worse.

And, more often than not, sunscreen just isn’t enough. You need to actually wear a hat and cover up as much as possible. It’s not just about actively going into the sun, like going to the beach or swimming. It’s about taking every precaution, every day. In a car, the sun reaches your skin through the windows – it’s even reflected off mirrors and other cars. And, if you sit near a window at the office, it reaches you through the glass. Basically, if you can see sunlight, it’s already reaching your skin, so be properly prepared.

ABC's Treatments for Malasma

1) Chemical Peels

2) IPL Soft Laser

3) Medical Microneedling 

4) Oral Supplementation

5) Brightening Home Skin Care 

6) Sun Protection Products

Yours in Health and Beauty,

Olga Alexia

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