Medically Reviewed on 4/25/2023

What is melasma?

Melasma is patchy brown skin discoloration that occurs on the face.
Melasma is a patchy brown skin discoloration that occurs on the face.

Melasma is a very common patchy brown, tan, or blue-gray facial skin discoloration, usually seen in women in their reproductive years.

Melasma usually appears on the following:

  • Upper cheeks
  • Upper lip
  • Forehead
  • The chin of women 20-50 years of age

Prevention is primarily aimed at facial sun protection and sun avoidance. Treatment requires regular sunscreen application, medications such as 4% hydroquinone, and other fading creams.

What are the different types of melasma?

There are four types of pigmentation patterns in melasma:

  1. Epidermal melasma is identified by the presence of excess melanin in the superficial layers of the skin.
  2. Dermal melasma is distinguished by the presence of melanophages (cells that ingest melanin) throughout the dermis.
  3. Mixed melasma includes both the epidermal and dermal types.
  4. Excess melanocytes are present in the skin of dark-skinned individuals.

What is the main cause of melasma?

The exact cause of melasma remains unknown. Experts believe that the dark patches in melasma could be triggered by several factors, including pregnancy, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy (HRT and progesterone), family history of melasma, race, and anti-seizure medications. Sunlight is considered the most important factor in the production of melasma, especially in individuals with a genetic predisposition to this condition. Clinical studies have shown that individuals typically develop melasma in the summer months when the sun is most intense. In the winter, the pigmentation in melasma tends to regress.

When melasma occurs during pregnancy, it is also called chloasma, or "the mask of pregnancy." Pregnant women experience increased estrogen, progesterone, and melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) levels during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Melanocytes are the cells in the skin that deposit pigment. However, it is thought that pregnancy-related melasma is caused by the presence of increased levels of progesterone and not due to estrogen and MSH. Studies have shown that postmenopausal women who receive progesterone hormone replacement therapy are more likely to develop melasma. Postmenopausal women receiving estrogen alone seem less likely to develop melasma.

In addition, products or treatments that irritate the skin may cause an increase in melanin production and accelerate melasma symptoms.

People with a genetic predisposition or known family history of melasma are at an increased risk of developing melasma. Important prevention methods for these individuals include sun avoidance and the application of extra sunblock to avoid stimulating pigment production. These individuals may also consider discussing their concerns with their doctor and avoiding birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) if possible.

What are the risk factors for melasma?

Most people with melasma have a history of daily or intermittent sun exposure, although heat is also suspected to be an underlying factor. It is most common among pregnant women, especially those of Latin and Asian descent. People with olive or darker skin, like Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern individuals, have higher incidences of melasma. Melasma is rare in males.

Melasma is thought to be primarily related to the following:

  • External sun exposure
  • External hormones like birth control pills
  • Internal hormonal changes during pregnancy


Stages of Pregnancy: Week by Week See Slideshow

What are symptoms and signs of melasma?

Melasma is characterized by discoloration or hyperpigmentation primarily on the face.

Three types of common facial patterns have been identified in melasma, including the following:

  • Center of the face (centrofacial)
  • Cheekbones (malar)
  • Jawbone (mandibular)

The centrofacial pattern is the most prevalent form of melasma and includes the following:

  • Forehead
  • Cheeks
  • Upper lip
  • Nose
  • Chin

The malar pattern includes the upper cheeks. The jawbone pattern is specific to the jaw.

The upper sides of the neck may less commonly be involved in melasma. Rarely, melasma may occur on other body parts like the forearms. One study confirmed the occurrence of melasma on the forearms of people being given progesterone. This was a unique pattern seen in a Native American study.

What tests diagnose melasma?

Melasma is readily diagnosed by recognizing the typical appearance of brown skin patches on the face. Dermatologists are physicians who specialize in skin disorders and often diagnose melasma by visually examining the skin. A black light or Wood's light (340-400 nm) can assist in diagnosing melasma, although is not essential for diagnosis.

In most cases, mixed melasma is diagnosed, which means the discoloration is due to pigment in the dermis and epidermis. Rarely, a skin biopsy may be necessary to help exclude other causes of this local skin hyperpigmentation.

Which melasma treatments can be done at a doctor's office?

Many types and strengths of chemical peels are available for different skin types. The type of peel should be tailored for each individual and selected by the physician. In treating melasma, 30%-70% glycolic acid peels are very common. Various combinations, including a mix of 10% glycolic acid and 2% HQ, can be used to treat melasma.

Microdermabrasion utilizes vacuum suction and abrasive material like fine diamond chips or aluminum oxide crystals to exfoliate the top layers of the skin. The vacuum pressure is adjusted depending on the sensitivity and tolerance of the skin. Typical microdermabrasion sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to one hour. Minimal to no recovery time is needed after microdermabrasion. Microdermabrasion techniques can improve melasma, but dramatic results are not generally seen or expected after one or two treatments. Multiple treatments in combination with sunscreen and other creams yield the best results.

There is no guarantee that melasma will be improved with these procedures. In some cases, if treatments are too harsh or abrasive, melasma can be induced or worsen. Additionally, these procedures are almost always considered cosmetic and may not be covered by medical insurance providers.

What are the best treatments for melasma?

The most common melasma therapies include 2% hydroquinone (HQ) creams like the over-the-counter products Esoterica and Porcelana and prescription-strength medications such as Obagi Clear, NeoCutis Blanche, and 4% hydroquinone.

Other treatments for melasma include the following:

  • Certain sunscreens also contain 4% hydroquinone, such as Glytone Clarifying Skin Bleaching Sunvanish SPF 23 and Obagi's Sunfader sunscreen.
  • Products with HQ concentrations above 2% sometimes require a prescription or are dispensed through physician's practices.
  • Clinical studies show that creams containing 2% HQ can be effective in lightening the skin and are less irritating than higher concentrations of HQ for melasma.
  • Creams are usually applied to the brown patches twice a day.
  • Sunscreen should be applied over the hydroquinone cream every morning.
  • There are treatments for all types of melasma, but the epidermal type responds better to treatment than the others because the pigment is closer to the skin surface.
  • Melasma may clear spontaneously without treatment. Other times, it may clear with sunscreen usage and sun avoidance.
  • In some people, the discoloration with melasma may disappear following pregnancy or if birth control pills and hormone therapy are discontinued.
  • To treat melasma, a combination of specially formulated creams with hydroquinone, a phenolic hypopigmenting agent, azelaic acid, and retinoic acid (tretinoin), nonphenolic bleaching agents, and/or kojic acid may be prescribed.
  • For severe cases of melasma, creams with a higher concentration of HQ or combining HQ with other ingredients such as tretinoin, corticosteroids, or glycolic acid may be effective in lightening the skin.

A list of melasma medication treatments includes the following:

  • Azelaic acid 15%-20% (Azelex, Finacea)
  • Retinoic acid 0.025%-0.1% (tretinoin)
  • Tazarotene 0.5%-0.1% (Tazorac cream or gel)
  • Adapalene 0.1%-0.3% (Differin gel)
  • Kojic acid
  • Lactic acid lotions 12% (Lac-Hydrin or Am-Lactin)
  • Glycolic acid 10%-20% creams (Citrix cream, NeoStrata)
  • Glycolic acid peels 10%-70%

Other proprietary ingredients and mixtures of ingredients as in Elure, Lumixyl, and SkinMedica's Lytera products

What are the side effects of melasma creams?

  • Possible side effects of melasma treatments include temporary skin irritation.
  • People who use HQ treatment in very high concentrations for prolonged periods (usually several months to years) are at risk of developing a side effect called exogenous ochronosis.
  • In ochronosis, the skin darkens while the bleaching agent is used.
  • Hydroquinone-induced ochronosis is a permanent skin discoloration that is thought to result from the use of hydroquinone concentrations above 4%.
  • Although ochronosis is fairly uncommon in the U.S., it is more common in areas like Africa where hydroquinone concentrations upward of 10%-20% may be used to treat skin discoloration like melasma.
  • Regardless of the potential side effects, HQ remains the most widely used and successful fading cream for treating melasma worldwide. HQ should be discontinued at the first signs of ochronosis.

Does laser treatment work for melasma? Is it safe if you are pregnant?

Lasers may be used in melasma, but they generally produce only temporary results. Laser therapy is not the primary choice to treat melasma as studies reveal little to no improvement in the hyperpigmentation for most patients. Lasers may worsen some types of melasma and should be used with caution. Multiple laser treatments may be necessary to see results, as treatments are most effective when they are repeated.

To ensure that treatment doesn't fail, people must minimize sun exposure. People who treat their melasma report better quality of life because they feel better about themselves. As with any treatment, people should consult their physician.

Pregnant women or mothers breastfeeding may need to wait to treat melasma. Many melasma creams need to be discontinued in pregnancy and breastfeeding because of possible risks to the developing fetus and newborn.  During pregnancy, women may want to try cosmetics to temporarily conceal skin discoloration.

How do hydroquinone creams treat melasma?

Researchers believe that the hydroxyphenolic chemical (HQ) blocks a step in a specific enzymatic pathway that involves tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is the enzyme that converts dopamine to melanin. Melanin gives skin its color.

Are there non-hydroquinone alternative treatments for melasma?

Azelaic acid is a non-hydroquinone cream that can be used to treat melasma. Studies have reported that 15%-20% azelaic acid was very effective and safe in melasma, although the overall results are significantly less impressive than 4% hydroquinone. There are no major complications reported with azelaic acid. Possible minor side effects include itching (pruritus), redness (erythema), scaling (dry patches), and a temporary burning sensation that tends to improve after 14-30 days of use. Currently, there is no FDA indication for the use of azelaic acid in the treatment of melasma.

Tretinoin cream (Retin A, Renova, Retin A Micro) contains a vitamin A analog (a retinoid) that seems to have efficacy in treating melasma. Most often, tretinoin is used in combination with other creams like azelaic acid or hydroquinone. Mild localized side effects are fairly common and include peeling, dry skin, and irritation. Although it is not "indicated" for the treatment of melasma, it has been shown to have a beneficial effect. Other retinoid creams like tazaratone and adapelene may be helpful, as well.

Recently, while studying tranexamic acid, a new drug used to treat women with excessive bleeding during menstruation, it was coincidentally found that their melasma improved. Although this drug is available in the United States for the treatment of excessive menstrual bleeding, it does not currently indicate the treatment of melasma.

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Skin Care & Conditions Newsletter

By clicking "Submit," I agree to the MedicineNet Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. I also agree to receive emails from MedicineNet and I understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet subscriptions at any time.

What is the prognosis for melasma?

Although melasma tends to be a chronic disorder with periodic ups and downs, the prognosis for most cases is good. Just as melasma develops slowly, clearance also tends to be slow. The gradual disappearance of dark spots is based on establishing the right treatment combination for each skin type. Melasma cases that do not successfully respond to treatment are due to excessive sun exposure.

Can you prevent melasma?

Sometimes melasma may be preventable by avoiding facial sun exposure. In most cases, prevention is difficult. Individuals who have a family history of melasma must take extra precautions to prevent melasma. The most important way to prevent the onset of melasma and premature aging is to avoid the sun. If exposure to sunlight cannot be avoided, then hats, sunglasses, and sunblock with physical blockers should be worn.

What strength of SPF sunscreen is recommended for melasma?

A daily sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 50 that contains physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, is recommended to block UV rays, but it is important to have a sunblock that also covers UVA protection. Chemical blockers may not fully block both types of UV-A and UV-B as effectively as zinc or titanium. The regular use of sun protection enhances the effectiveness of melasma treatments.

Medically Reviewed on 4/25/2023
Del Rosario, Eunice, et al. "Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Double-Blind Study of Oral Tranexamic Acid in the Treatment of Moderate-to-Severe Melasma." J Am Acad Dermatol 78.2 February 2018: 363-369.

Freedberg, Irwin M., et al. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, Fourth Ed., Vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Rodrigues, Michelle, and Amit G. Pandya. "Melasma: Clinical Diagnosis and Management Options." Australasian Journal of Dermatology 2015: 1-13.