August 10, 2023

What Is the Difference Between Melasma and Hyperpigmentation?

woman in white tank top holding white labeled bottle. Melasma and hyperpigmentation
woman in white tank top holding white labeled bottle. Melasma and hyperpigmentation

Skin concerns are prevalent among people of all ages and backgrounds. Two common conditions that often cause confusion are melasma and hyperpigmentation. Both skin conditions involve darkened patches or discoloration spots on the skin and — in some cases— are even used interchangeably. 

Despite their similarities though, these two have different underlying causes, overall appearance, and more importantly, treatment strategies. As such, understanding the differences between the two is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. 

Table of Contents

Melasma vs Hyperpigmentation: A Quick Look

A good way to effectively summarize the difference between melasma and hyperpigmentation is this phrase — all melasma is hyperpigmentation, but not all hyperpigmentation is melasma.

That’s because melasma is classified as a kind or type of hyperpigmentation. Meanwhile, hyperpigmentation refers to any form of discoloration of the skin. This ranges from regular acne marks and freckles, all the way to skin conditions like age spots, sun spots, and melasma.

This is one of reasons why it can be difficult to differentiate between the two. Below, we dive deeper into the key differences between melasma and hyperpigmentation, how to identify each condition, and explore treatment options.

What Is Melasma?

Melasma is a skin condition characterized by symmetrical and well-defined brownish or grayish patches on the face, particularly on the cheeks, forehead, bridge of the nose, chin, and upper lip. It is a common skin disorder, affecting both men and women.

However, it is particularly seen among women with darker skin and women who have gone through pregnancy or are currently pregnant. In fact, melasma is often referred to as a “pregnancy mask” because it commonly affects pregnant women.

Causes of Melasma

Doctors have yet to fully understand the exact cause of melasma. However, in general, the condition is believed to occur due to the overproduction of melanin, the pigment responsible for the color of our skin, hair, and eyes.

Certain characteristics or conditions can cause or greatly increase the likelihood of developing melasma. These include:

  • Hormones: Birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, and certain medications can disrupt hormone levels and trigger melasma.
  • Sun Exposure: Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun stimulate melanocytes (cells responsible for melanin production), leading to the appearance of dark patches.
  • Genetic Predisposition: Family history plays a role in the development of melasma, making some individuals more susceptible than others.
  • Pregnancy: Around 15% to 50% of pregnant women develop melasma during pregnancy, since this is a time of hormonal instability for many.
  • Skin Color: Melasma is also more likely to occur among people with light brown skin tones.

What Is Hyperpigmentation?

Hyperpigmentation is a broad term used to describe areas of the skin that are darker than the surrounding skin due to excess melanin production. Unlike melasma, hyperpigmentation is not limited to specific facial regions and can occur anywhere on the body.

It can appear as small, scattered spots or larger, irregular patches. Unlike melasma, the borders of hyperpigmented areas are less defined and may blend into the surrounding skin.

Causes of Hyperpigmentation

There are different types of hyperpigmentation, including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), age spots, and sunspots. The causes of hyperpigmentation can vary depending on the specific type:

  • Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH): This type of hyperpigmentation occurs as a result of inflammation or injury to the skin, such as acne, burns, or cuts.
  • Age Spots and Sunspots: These are caused by prolonged exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays, leading to the accumulation of melanin in specific areas.
  • Hormonal Changes: Similar to melasma, hormonal imbalances can also trigger certain types of hyperpigmentation.

Dealing With Melasma and Hyperpigmentation Post-Pregnancy

Pregnancy causes a multitude of hormonal changes in a woman’s body. These changes can have significant effects on the skin, including increased melanin production.

This is the main reason why women become more susceptible to melasma, especially during the second and third trimesters. This phenomenon is often referred to as “chloasma gravidarum” or the “mask of pregnancy.”

Post-pregnancy, melasma and hyperpigmentation may persist or worsen due to continued hormonal fluctuations and increased sensitivity to UV radiation. The good news is that, in most cases, melasma and hyperpigmentation can be effectively treated by following a better skincare regimen or with the help of a skincare expert.

Some tips to help manage these conditions effectively after pregnancy include:

  • Sun Protection: Regularly use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, even on cloudy days. Stay in the shade, wear protective clothing, and use wide-brimmed hats to minimize sun exposure.
  • Topical Treatments: Over-the-counter products containing ingredients like hydroquinone is a common treatment for melasma. For hyperpigmentation, products with vitamin C, glycolic acid, azelaic acid, or kojic acid may help lighten hyperpigmented areas. 
  • Prescription Medications: For severe cases, a dermatologist may prescribe stronger topical treatments or oral medications to regulate melanin production. 

In severe cases or if topical and oral medications fail to reduce the symptoms of melasma, dermatologists may recommend medical procedures. These are generally non-invasive, often along the lines of facial treatments or cosmetic procedures.

Some commonly recommended treatments include:

  • Chemical Peels: Dermatologists can perform chemical peels to remove the outer layer of the skin, promoting the growth of new, evenly pigmented skin.
  • Microdermabrasion: Similar to chemical peels, microdermabrasion also greatly reduces the appearance of melasma by exfoliating the outer layer of skin and stimulating skin cell growth.
  • Laser Therapy: Laser treatments target melanin and break down excess pigment, helping to reduce the appearance of dark spots. However, laser therapy is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Dermatologists may sometimes recommend a combination of two treatments, like microdermabrasion with light or laser therapy.

It is best to consult a qualified healthcare or skincare professional like a dermatologist to determine your treatment options. In particular, be sure to speak with a dermatologist before using any products while breastfeeding.

Remember, each person’s skin is unique, so seeking professional advice is crucial for optimal results.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the differences between melasma and hyperpigmentation is crucial in determining the appropriate treatment and management strategies. While both conditions involve dark patches on the skin, melasma is typically more defined and associated with hormonal fluctuations. On the other hand, hyperpigmentation can occur due to various factors, including sun exposure and inflammation.

For individuals experiencing skin concerns post-pregnancy, prioritizing sun protection and maintaining a healthy skincare routine is key. Most importantly, it is essential to consult a dermatologist for personalized treatment recommendations instead of immediately trying out treatments or products seen online or recommended by others.

By being proactive and well-informed, you can effectively address melasma and hyperpigmentation — regaining your confidence and enjoying clear, radiant skin, even after pregnancy.

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