Melasma vs. Hyperpigmentation: What’s the Difference?
Understanding on a fundamental level the differences between melasma and hyperpigmentation will help you understand your skin better and what you might be dealing with. Basically, melasma Is a form of hyperpigmentation, and hyperpigmentation refers to any darkening of the skin.
What Is Hyperpigmentation?
Hyperpigmentation is the big umbrella term that refers to any skin condition in which the skin appears discolored and darkened. This could be due to sun exposure that’s led to skin damage, scarring from acne or even a flare-up that’s led to redness and swelling. Basically, any skin darkening will fall under that broad term of hyperpigmentation. Some common types of hyperpigmentation include:
- Scarring from an acne breakout
- Freckles and sunspots
- Discoloration from other skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis
Acne, ultraviolet rays from the sun and rashes on your skin all have the ability to stimulate the production of pigment-producing cells in the skin (melanocytes) and create more pigment than usual.
The longer the trigger for hyperpigmentation goes on, the harder it may be to treat. This means that if you are exposed to the sun for long amounts of time which leads to skin discoloration, that might be a harder case to treat versus hyperpigmentation brought on by a recent acne breakout, for instance.
Hyperpigmentation describes a number of skin conditions in which there is patchiness, and discoloration, due to one area becoming strikingly darker than its surrounding skin. Hyperpigmentation could be referring to all sorts of skin conditions such as liver spots, freckles, and yes, melasma.
Each type of hyperpigmentation can be caused by a variety of factors such as medication or scarring, usually the cause of most types of hyperpigmentation is, you guessed it: sun exposure.
We cannot overstate the importance of protection in the sun, and being mindful of prolonged amounts of time exposed to the sun.
Hyperpigmentation or sunburns may be the most visible way sun-overexposure manifests, but over exposure to sun can quickly lead to conditions with more severity like skin cancer.
What Is Melasma?
Melasma is a form of hyperpigmentation. It is distinct from simply being labeled as hyperpigmentation, largely due to the fact that it’s usually brought on by a hormone shift.
The distinguishing factors of melasma are:
- Usually occurs in women
- Usually occurs in melanin-rich women
- Occurs frequently during pregnancy due to hormone shifts, and is sometimes referred to as “the mask of pregnancy”
- Prevalent on the face, forehead, chin and above the lips
- Appears as discoloration and is exacerbated when exposed to the sun
Melasma will typically appear as blotchy hyperpigmentation areas on your face, and especially on your cheeks, bridge of the nose, forehead, chin and upper lip. In fact, melasma can appear on other parts of the body, but it’s unlikely and not super common.
Areas with a high amount of sun-exposure are the most at-risk areas for experiencing melasma. For many people with melasma, it improves in the winter but comes back in the summer due to the sun exposure.
Additionally, any type of hormone shift could trigger melasma. Hormonal shifts can include:
- Beginning, going off of, or switching birth control
- Other hormonal treatments
Can You Treat Melasma?
Melasma is difficult to treat and hasn’t seen the same type of success with treatments as other types of hyperpigmentation. While treatments for melasma depend on the severity of your melasma. The most important thing which we cannot echo enough is: SPF!
Some remedies that may help melasma include:
- Brightening ingredients such as Vitamin C
- Laser treatments
No matter what course of treatment you approach for dealing with your melasma, wearing sunscreen cannot be stressed enough.
Another unique feature of melasma is the difficulty that treating it presents. Hyperpigmentation can oftentimes be treated with topical creams and ointments, but melasma is not so simple. Because it is largely affected by a hormone shift, it’s hard to eliminate those conditions.
Melasma is typically more stubborn than other types of hyperpigmentation. Changing a person's hormone makeup isn’t a possibility when treating melasma, and each person will react different to various treatment tactics.
Though treating melasma is notorious for being difficult, it has been shown to respond well to brightening ingredients like hydroquinone. It’s important to try one treatment or ingredient at a time when treating melasma (though diving all in, all at once is tempting).
Methods for treating melasma will vary based on the severity of your melasma, and everyone has a unique case. No treatment plan is copy and pasted onto the next person, and what works for one may not work for the next.
Searching for and deciding on the best treatment for you and your specific skincare needs in treating your hyperpigmentation or melasma is an important task worth deliberating with your dermatologist about, and having a consultation to ensure you are on the best treatment route.
As stated before, it’s often hard to tell if you are dealing with hyperpigmentation or melasma on your skin. Both are extremely common conditions, look very similar to one other, and are caused by similar triggers.
While distinguishing the two is important, it’s also important to recognize the many treatments that are able to treat both. Most treatments fall along the same lines; however, because melasma is affected by hormone changes, sometimes preventative care is impossible. So, we solely opt for topical treatments.
Hyperpigmentation has been proven to respond well to a number of different ingredients including:
- Because of Vitamin C’s powerful antioxidant properties combined with its ability to inhibit the production of melanin, Vitamin C makes for a powerhouse ingredient when soothing all types of hyperpigmentation.
- Kojic Acid blocks tyrosinase (responsible for the first step in melanin production) thus, halting the melanin production that causes excess pigment. Kojic Acid can help lighten sunspots as well as aid in softening scarring from an acne breakout, or help melasma.
- Niacinamide helps hyperpigmentation by stopping the pigment making enzymes from moving. Niacinamide is a great ingredient for skincare and helps reduce redness and swelling, thus improving skin texture and brightening skin.
- Hydroquinone has been the cause of some controversy in the skincare scene, but all in all, there’s no definitive research to prove that hydroquinone is harmful. It is FDA approved, and can lighten hyperpigmented areas of your skin by decreasing the number of melanocytes present. Hydroquinone bleaches your skin by decreasing the number of melanocytes present. If you are looking for an alternative to hydroquinone, Tranexamic Acid can be used by pregnant and nursing women (while Hydroquinone cannot).
- Azelaic Acid may help prevent hyperpigmentation by stopping melanin production in the designated areas.
- A chemical peel is the most harsh treatment to try. It uses acids in high concentrations on the hyperpigmented areas of skin, reducing the appearance of pigmentation in those areas by removing the epidermis layer of the skin. Stronger chemical peels may reach even deeper into the middle layer of your skin. Chemical peels are a medical treatment and aren’t for administering on your own.
The Importance of Sunscreen
Hands down, the most important thing you can do when preventing melasma and hyperpigmentation is using sunscreen consistently. There is no way to overstate this! Sunscreen is your skin's best friend.
Sunscreen is the end all be all skincare ingredient that when regularly applied, will only help your skin conditions. Whether melasma, hyperpigmentation or even just normal skin, it is critical to apply sunscreen.
Though we have discussed other triggers, the sun is more often than not the sneakiest trigger of all. You cannot expect to recover or prevent hyperpigmentation or melasma without consistent sunscreen use.
Sometimes you may not realize you’ve been in the sun for too long until you see blotchiness or a sunburn, so it’s important to be preventative when applying sunscreen versus being reactive later.
Find Out What’s Best for You
Remember that consulting a dermatologist is always going to be an important step in deciding on skincare treatment plans and routine. Consider having a consultation to better understand and decide what course of action will cater to you and your unique needs.
Melasma and hyperpigmentation each have their unique aspects but are also closely related.
Both skin conditions can benefit from natural antioxidants, vitamins and serums, and if you have any questions, take our Skin Quiz and book a virtual consultation to better plan out your skincare treatment plan, especially with experts who understand melanin richness!
If you’d like to find a dermatologist near you, you can find one using our Melanin Experts Network.