Melasma: Causes and Treatments

Being a woman is hard enough, but sometimes there are things that just make our lives even harder. Have you ever developed dark patches on your forehead and cheeks that you can never pinpoint the cause of? Have these patches remained unfaded for years, preventing you from having a fresh and even complexion?
If that’s the case, you may be experiencing what is called melasma, a skin condition that millions of women go through all throughout their lives. It’s an all too common condition for women, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
In this article, we’ll explore what melasma is and what causes melasma so we can understand what exactly we’re dealing with. We’ll also go through various treatments for melasma that you can avail of, whether at home or at the clinic.

What is melasma?

Melasma, also lesser known as chloasma, is a type of skin condition that causes brown or gray patches on the face and neck. As a form of hyperpigmentation, it occurs when your skin cells produce too much melanin, the pigment that gives your skin color. When these cells are triggered and overstimulated, they malfunction and create these dark patchy areas.
Melasma often appears as flat brown or blue-gray patches or as a cluster of freckle-like spots. They are different from other types of hyperpigmentation like sunspots, which are usually smaller in size.
Melasma commonly affects certain areas of the face, such as:
●      the forehead;
●      the cheeks;
●      the bridge of the nose; and
●      the upper lip.
Sometimes, brown patches may also appear on other areas of the body, such as the neck, shoulders, and forearms.

What causes melasma?

While not much is known yet about how exactly melasma comes about, there is already a lot of knowledge regarding the different factors that trigger its development. Melasma can occur to anyone, but women are much more likely to develop the skin condition. Only 10% of melasma cases are found in men; 90% are in women. Specifically, women between 20 and 40 years of age develop melasma most commonly.
Here are the most common factors that may be causing those brown patches to pop up on your face:


Hormonal fluctuations are a common underlying cause of melasma. Sudden increases or decreases in hormones like estrogen and progesterone can lead to individuals developing sudden dark patches on their faces.
Aside from being caused by natural fluctuations, melasma can also occur during hormone replacement therapy, or when you start or stop using birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives.


Because of the resulting hormonal changes, several pregnant women experience melasma during those difficult months. About 15% to 50% of pregnant women report developing brown patches during their pregnancy. Melasma occurs so frequently as a side effect of pregnancy that it has even been called the “mask of pregnancy.”

Sun exposure

Despite the different hormonal causes of melasma, the sun remains the primary culprit and trigger for this skin discoloration. Too much sun exposure can cause a malfunction with the melanin-producing cells, leading to melasma and other types of skin hyperpigmentation.
If hormonal fluctuations increase your likelihood of developing melasma, overexposure to the sun is what manifests and exacerbates the problem.

Heat and UV sources

Aside from the sun, we expose ourselves to so many other heat and UV sources throughout the day that may be triggering our skin to irregularly produce more melanin. Overexposure to things like heating lamps, tanning beds, and cooking grills may be the reason behind your melasma.


Family history may also come into play in increasing the risk for melasma. About 1 in 3 people with melasma report that they have a family member who also has or has had the skin condition. Additionally, people with darker skin are much more likely to develop melasma compared to those with fairer skin.

Should I consult a dermatologist for treating melasma?

In many cases, there is no need for any treatments for melasma because the brown patches go away on their own. Especially when the melasma is caused by pregnancy or hormonal changes, it naturally fades away a few weeks after delivery or after hormones are balanced.
But in some cases, the dark patches caused by melasma can last for many months, even years in severe cases. When the brown patches become chronic and don’t seem to fade, this is when you may want to look into different treatments to deal with your case of melasma.
The problem is that melasma can be quite difficult to self-diagnose and is often confused with other types of hyperpigmentation. Without first confirming whether your dark patches are indeed melasma and pinpointing its triggers, it will be impossible to get to the bottom of the problem and treat it for good.
A consultation with a dermatologist is absolutely recommended if you want to treat melasma with guidance and certainty. It’s important to quickly take action because early detection of your melasma leads to easier and more effective treatment.

How does a dermatologist address my melasma?

Before anything else, a dermatologist needs to diagnose whether the brown patches on your face are indeed melasma and to what extent those patches have developed on the skin. Your dermatologist may use a black light (or a Wood’s light) to locate the patches, some of which may not yet be visible to the naked eye.
Your medical history will then be thoroughly examined to look for the triggers that are causing your melasma. Are you on any hormonal contraceptives? Are you exposed to a strong UV source? Are you using phototoxic skin products? Adjustments can then be made to remove those triggers or change them with a safer alternative.
Properly identifying and removing those triggers is extremely important before attempting to treat the dark patches. Any treatment and medication will not solve the problem in the long-term if the melasma’s triggers are still in place.
Once a preventative plan has been made to deal with the triggers, your dermatologist can now recommend different topical treatments and medical procedures that can fade away the dark patches in time.

What are the available treatments for melasma?

There are several treatments that dermatologists can recommend and perform for treating the stubborn brown patches of melasma. While there is no overnight fix (especially for chronic cases), these treatments can definitely hasten the process of lightening the hyperpigmentation and help resurface a brighter, more even complexion.

Topical treatments

Topical products for melasma come in various forms like serums, lotions, and creams. These products contain different active ingredients that are scientifically proven to lighten the skin.

Doctors usually recommend hydroquinone as the first course of action for melasma, as well as corticosteroids and tretinoin. Some products also combine these three powerful ingredients to create an effective prescription cream called triple creams.

Products with ingredients like niacinamide, L-ascorbic acid, and azelaic acid are also recommended as maintenance treatments to boost the brightening and evening of the skin from the primary treatments.

Many topical treatments are available over-the-counter, and these usually come milder in formulation. For treating darker patches, your dermatologist may also suggest products with stronger concentrations that you can get with a prescription. 

Chemical peels

A popular option for treating melasma and other types of hyperpigmentations are chemical peels. During this procedure, stronger concentrations of active ingredients are left on the skin to exfoliate the skin layers and promote the resurfacing of new skin cells.

Some mild chemical peels are already available in the market, but we still recommend in-office, professional-grade peels performed by a dermatologist for a worry-free procedure.


Whereas chemical peels use potent chemicals for exfoliation, dermabrasion (or microdermabrasion) uses a special handheld device to physically remove dead and stubborn skin cells.

Commonly, a dermabrasion procedure uses a gentle abrasive tool like a diamond fraise to remove layers of the epidermis. Some special innovative treatments bring dermabrasion and chemical peels together for a robust exfoliating experience.

What topical treatments are recommended for treating melasma?

If you’re looking for a reliable treatment plan for melasma, consider looking into complete skincare systems that are specially designed to deliver promising results after dedicated use. The Obagi Nu-Derm Fx System is a mighty skincare system that incorporates potent ingredients into your regimen, and it includes every step that you’ll need to brighten and take care of your skin. Not only does it brighten and lighten the skin in time, it also keeps it moisturized and fortified along the way.
The Obagi 360 System is another beloved skincare system that doesn’t hold back in nourishing and plumping up the skin while working against your dark patches. True to its name, it offers a 360-degree rejuvenation that also addresses other skin conditions such as fine lines and rough texture.
Melasma can be a challenging part of growing up as a woman, but it doesn’t have to be. With the help of various treatments that you can avail and with the guidance of your trusted dermatologist, those brown patches can be a thing of the past.