That dark patch on your cheek that you thought was a healing sunburn could actually be the sign of a common, though little-known skin condition called melasma.
Melasma causes brown or brownish-gray patches to appear on your skin ― most commonly on your face, along the forehead, cheeks, upper lip and chin. It’s caused by an overactivity of the skin’s color-making cells, called melanocytes, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
The good news? It’s easily treatable and rarely dangerous. Melasma can range from mild to severe and affects more than five million Americans, 90 percent of whom are women. It is also more common among people with darker skin tones, including Latinos and people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent, according to the AAD.
Celebrities like Jenna Dewan Tatum, Brooke Burke and Ginger Zee from “Good Morning America” have spoken about their experiences with melasma. Recently, Sarah Silverman shared a photo of herself covering up in the sun due to her issues with the condition.
“Many of my patients aren’t aware their discoloration is a common disorder named melasma,” Lauren Ploch, a New Orleans-based dermatologist, told HuffPost. “They often attribute it to a previous sunburn or oral contraceptive pills. Many people aren’t aware that it is treatable.”
So what should you do if you suspect you’ve got it? Read on for more info:
What causes melasma?
While it’s not entirely clear, researchers suspect sun exposure is the main cause: Ultraviolet light can put the skin’s color-producing cells into overdrive for some people, especially those with darker skin, according to the AAD. Hormonal changes from pregnancy or birth control can cause melasma to act up, too.
Melasma commonly appears during pregnancy, while taking birth control, or after sun exposure.
How do I know if I have it?
Melasma patches can be subtle and come with no other symptoms. Dermatologists can usually diagnose it just by looking at the skin.
Look for brown or brownish-gray patches on your cheeks, forehead, nose bridge, above your upper lip or on your chin. Some people get patches on their forearms or neck, per the AAD.
Melasma is sometimes mistaken for more typical sun spots, or lentigos, said Jessica Krant, a dermatologist at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York.
“Since there are many types of brownish skin discoloration, it’s very possible people might have some areas of melasma without realizing it,” she told HuffPost.
Does melasma put me at risk for other disorders?
No, but it may signify other potential issues. Because melasma often appears after significant sun exposure, it could mean you’re at higher risk for skin cancer, Ploch said.
Hormone changes from thyroid problems may also cause melasma, she added, so it’s smart to check with your doctor if the condition doesn’t go away.
What can I do to treat it?
The best thing to do is start using sunscreen ASAP.
“[You] should immediately start wearing a physical sunblock daily,” Ploch said. “Melasma is easier to treat when it’s new.”
Very early melasma can clear up on its own with sunscreen, she added. If that doesn’t work, Ploch usually prescribes a compounded topical cream, then moves on to laser treatments and peels. Pregnancy-induced melasma usually clears up on its own. A dermatologist can help you plan for how treat yours.
Overall, it’s important for people to recognize that melasma is an issue, and that it’s treatable, said Anand Ganesan, a melasma expert at the University of California Irvine. Some research has shown that melasma spots can make patients feel frustrated, embarrassed or depressed about their appearance, and treating it ― instead of letting it linger ― can provide an important confidence boost, he said.
“There are situations where (melasma) doesn’t adversely affect some people,” Ganesan said. “However [that] shouldn’t be used to discount the fact that others have it and it affects them severely.”