Recently, I was chatting with a friend who mentioned how her skin suddenly developed a weird, blotchy, brownish rash when she was on vacation. “It looked like a bunch of acne scars above my lip and on my forehead, so I thought it was just a new crop of freckles,” she said. But, when she finally went to the dermatologist after three weeks of my daily, pushy reminders, she discovered it was not, in fact, freckles, but melasma—a skin condition that can happen to literally anyone. *Cue scary music*
Just kidding; it’s not the kiss of death, but it is incredibly annoying. “Melasma is a complex condition that causes hyperpigmented patches on the skin,” says all-around skin wizard, Annie Chiu, MD, dermatologist at The Derm Institute. And she didn’t just throw “complex” in there for funsies—melasma is actually pretty complex, because it’s caused by a multitude of factors, including “genetic tendency, increased estrogen, and skin type,” she says.
Plus, if you love hanging outdoors in the sun or watching a bunch of movies on your iPad—AKA being in front of visible light or infrared energy—you’re at an even higher risk for developing or worsening melasma, says Dr. Chiu. Add in a bit of pregnancy (which seems to trigger bouts of melasma, thanks to hormonal surges), and you’ve got yourself a melasma cocktail.
All of which is to say that there’s no true, one-and-done way of preventing it, although sun protection can help decrease its impact. Still, if you have brown marks that look “patchy and widespread, rather than just a spot or two, and is occurring above the upper lip, on the upper cheeks, and on the forehead,” says Chiu, and you didn’t recently have a huge breakout or skin irritation, then it’s likely melasma.
But before you freak out, here’s the good news: It’s treatable. The bad news? It’s kind of a pain in the ass to get rid of, solely because it requires you to be vigilant about your at-home treatments. “In office, we use peels and very specific low-level lasers to break up the pigment, and then have patients treat at home with a mix of prescription-strength hydroquinone, kojic acid, retinol, and vitamin C products,” says Dr. Chiu, “as well as be meticulous about UVA- and UVB-protecting sunscreen.”
So, yeah, sorry—you’re going to have to go to the derm at least once if you want your melasma treated, but after that, you can at least keep the pigmentation at bay with skin-lightening products. And if you’re not sure which to buy, check out our favorites, below (which, fun fact, absolutely need to be used in conjunction with sunscreen, or your melasma will get worse).
FOR SENSITIVE SKIN
Massage a vitamin C serum over your clean, dry skin every morning. Our favorite? OZNaturals Vitamin C Serum BUY IT, which uses 20-percent vitamin C to gently stimulate collagen product to reduce dark spots.
FOR COMBO SKIN
Try a retinol. Technically, retinoids (the umbrella term for all vitamin-A derivatives, including retinol) can be used on all skin types, but if your skin isn’t sensitive enough for a vitamin C, yet you don’t want to push your luck with kojic acid, try a retinol, like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Moisturizer BUY IT.
FOR “TOUGHER” SKIN
As in, you’d never describe your skin as sensitive, even a tiny bit, then try La Roche-Posay Mela-D Pigment Control BUY IT, which uses kojic acid (which can be potentially irritating for some skin types) to lighten dark spots faster than vitamin C and even retinol.