What is melasma?
Melasma is a chronic skin disorder that results in symmetrical, blotchy, brownish facial pigmentation. It can lead to considerable embarrassment and distress.
This form of facial pigmentation is sometimes called chloasma, but as this means green skin, the term melasma (brown skin) is preferred.
What causes melasma?
The cause of melasma is complex. The pigmentation is due to overproduction of melanin by the pigment cells, melanocytes, which is taken up by the keratinocytes (epidermal melanosis) and/or deposited in the dermis (dermal melanosis). There is a genetic predisposition to melasma, with at least one-third of patients reporting other family members to be affected. In most people melasma is a chronic disorder.
Known triggers for melisma include:
- Sun exposure—this is the most important avoidable risk factor
- Pregnancy—in affected women, the pigment often fades a few months after delivery
- Hormone treatments—oral contraceptive pills containing oestrogen and/or progesterone, hormone replacement, intrauterine devices and implants are a factor in about a quarter of affected women
- Certain medications, scented or deodorant soaps, toiletries and cosmetics—these may cause a phototoxic reaction that triggers melasma, which may then persist long term
- Hypothyroidism (low levels of circulating thyroid hormone)
Melasma commonly arises in healthy, non-pregnant adults and persists for decades. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) deepens the pigmentation because it activates the melanocytes to produce more melanin.
Research is attempting to pinpoint the roles of stem cell, neural, vascular and local hormonal factors in promoting melanocyte activation.
Who gets melasma?
Melasma is more common in women than in men; only 1-in-4 to 1-in-20 affected individuals are male, depending on the population studied. It generally starts between the age of 20 and 40 years, but it can begin in childhood or not until middle-age.
Melasma is more common in people that tan well or have naturally brown skin (Fitzpatrick skin types 3 and 4) compared with those who have fair skin (skin types 1 and 2) or black skin (skin types 5 or 6).
What are the clinical features of melasma?
Melasma presents as macules (freckle-like spots) and larger flat brown patches.These are found on both sides of the face and have an irregular border. There are several distinct patterns.
- Centrofacial pattern: forehead, cheeks, nose and upper lips
- Malar pattern: cheeks and nose
- Lateral cheek pattern
- Mandibular pattern: jawline
- Reddened or inflamed forms of melasma (also called erythrosis pigmentosa faciei)
- Poikiloderma of Civatte: reddened, photoaging changes seen on the sides of the neck, mostly affecting patients older than 50 years
- Brachial type of melasma affecting shoulders and upper arms (also called acquired brachial cutaneous dyschromatosis).
Melasma is sometimes separated into epidermal (skin surface), dermal (deeper) and mixed types. A Wood lamp that emits black light (UVA1) may be used to identify the depth of the pigment.
|Type of melasma||Clinical features|
How is the diagnosis of melasma made?
The characteristic appearance of melasma means diagnosis is usually straightforward and made clinically. Other disorders that may be considered include:
- Postinflammatory pigmentation
- Solar lentigines and other forms of lentigo
- Drug-induced pigmentation, e.g. due to minocycline
- Lichen planus
- Naevus of Ota
- Guttate hypomelanosis, in which pale spots are prominent
Occasionally, skin biopsy may be performed to make or confirm the diagnosis of melasma. Histology varies with the type of melasma. But some degree of each of the following features is usually found.
- Melanin deposited in basal and suprabasal keratinocytes
- Highly dendritic (branched) deeply pigmented melanocytes
- Melanin in the dermis within melanophages
- Solar elastosis and elastic fibre fragmentation
The extent and severity of melasma can be described using the Melasma Area and Severity Index (MASI).
What is the treatment of melasma?
Generally a combination of the following measures is helpful.
- Discontinue hormonal contraception.
- Year-round sun protection. Use broad-spectrum very high protection factor (SPF 50+) sunscreen applied to the whole face every day. It should be reapplied every 2 hours if outdoors during the summer months. Alternatively or as well, use a make-up that contains sunscreen. Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
- Use a mild cleanser, and if the skin is dry, a light moisturiser.
- Cosmetic camouflage (make-up) is invaluable to disguise the pigment.
Tyrosinase inhibitors are the mainstay of treatment. The aim is to prevent new pigment formation by inhibiting formation of melanin by the melanocytes.
- Hydroquinone 2–4% as cream or lotion, applied accurately to pigmented areas at night for 2–4 months. This may cause contact dermatitis (stinging and redness) in 25% of patients. It should not be used in higher concentration or for prolonged courses as it has been associated with ochronosis (a bluish grey discolouration).
- Azelaic acid cream, lotion or gel can be used long term, and is safe even in pregnancy. This may also sting.
- Kojic acid is often included in formulations, as it binds copper, required by L-DOPA (a cofactor of tyrosinase). Kojic acid can cause irritant contact dermatitis and less commonly, allergic contact dermatitis.
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) also acts through copper to inhibit pigment production. It is well tolerated but highly unstable, so is usually combined with other agents.
- New agents under investigation include mequinol, arbutin and deoxyarbutin (from berries), licorice extract, rucinol, resveratrol, 4-hydroxy-anisole, 2,5-dimethyl-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone and/or N-acetyl glucosamine
Other active compounds used for melasma include:
- Topical corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone. These work quickly to fade the colour and reduce the likelihood of contact dermatitis caused by other agents.
- Soybean extract, which is thought to reduce the transfer of pigment from melanocytes to skin cells (keratinocytes) and to inhibit receptors.
- Tranexamic acid, a lysine analogue that inhibits plasmin and is usually used to stop bleeding. It reduces production of prostaglandins, the precursors of tyrosine. Tranexamic acid has been used experimentally for melasma as a cream or injected into the skin (mesotherapy), showing some benefit. It may cause allergy or irritation.
Superficial or epidermal pigment can be peeled off. Peeling can also allow tyrosinase inhibitors to penetrate more effectively.
- Topical alpha hydroxyacids including glycolic acid and lactic acid, as creams or as repeated superficial chemical peels, remove the surface skin and their low pH inhibits the activity of tyrosinase.
- Topical retinoids, such as tretinoin (a prescription medicine) are effective. Tretinoin can be hard to tolerate and sometimes causes contact dermatitis. Do not use during pregnancy.
- Salicylic acid, a common peeling ingredient in skin creams, can also be used for chemical peels but it is not very effective in melasma.
The most successful formulation has been a combination of hydroquinone, tretinoin, and moderate potency topical steroid. This has been found to result in improvement or clearance in up to 60–80% of those treated. Many other combinations of topical agents are in common use, as they are more effective than any one alone. However, these products are often expensive.
Oral treatment of melasma
Oral medications for melasma are under investigation, including tranexamic acid (a prescription medicine in New Zealand). None can be recommended at this time.
Devices used to treat melasma
The ideal treatment for melasma would destroy the pigment, while leaving the cells alone. Unfortunately, this is hard to achieve. Machines can be used to remove epidermal pigmentation but with caution—over-treatment may cause postinflammatory pigmentation. Patients should be pretreated with a tyrosinase inhibitor (see above).
Conventional carbon dioxide or erbium:YAG resurfacing lasers, pigment lasers (Q-switched ruby and Alexandrite devices) and mechanical dermabrasion and microdermabrasion should be used with caution in the treatment of melasma.
What is the outcome of treatment of melasma?
Results take time and the above measures are rarely completely successful.
Unfortunately, even in those that get a good result from treatment, pigmentation may reappear on exposure to summer sun and/or because of hormonal factors. New topical and oral agents are being studied and offer hope for effective treatments in the future.
- Vaneeta M. Sheth, Amit G. Pandya. Melasma: A comprehensive update Part I:Journal of the American Academy of DermatologyVolume 65, Issue 4, October 2011, Pages 689–697
- Vaneeta M. Sheth, Amit G. Pandya. Melasma: A comprehensive update Part II Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 65, Issue 4, October 2011, Pages 699-714
- Gupta AK, Gover MD, Nouri K, Taylor S. The treatment of melasma: A review of clinical trials. J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;55:1048-65. Medline.
- Melasma – Medscape Reference
- Melasma – British Association of Dermatologists
- Patient information: Melasma (The Basics) – UpToDate (for subscribers)
- Melasma: Tips to Make It Less Noticeable – video, American Academy of Dermatology
- Melasma: Tips for managing – American Academy of Dermatology
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