Melasma: melanocytes gone wild

Melasma: melanocytes gone wild

You’ve heard it since you were a kid: wearing sunscreen is important for preventing sunburn and ultimately, skin cancer.

Good advice. Here’s another reason to slather on sunblock, especially for women: melasma (muh-LAZ-muh). Melasma is a condition that causes blotches to appear on the skin that are darker than one’s normal skin color. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, they typically appear on the face, but can also pop up on the forearms or neck.

This happens when the cells in our skin that produce color, called melanocytes (muh-lan-UH-sites), become overactive. People who are not Caucasian are most likely to have melasma because they typically have melanocytes that are more active in the first place.

Sun exposure often is the culprit that leads to melasma, but hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, can play a role, too. Ninety percent of people who develop melasma are women.

For some women, melasma pops up as a side effect of taking birth control pills and disappears when they stop. Other women develop melasma during pregnancy. In such cases, it’s known as chloasma (kloh-AZ-muh) and has a nickname: the “pregnancy mask.” This kind of melasma may go away on its own after the baby is born.

When melasma doesn’t clear up naturally, a dermatologist can prescribe topical medications. These are not safe for unborn babies, so pregnant women should not use them. Some relatively simple procedures also may help.

Because sun exposure often triggers melasma, using sunscreen and wearing wide-brimmed hats and other protective clothing may prevent episodes.

Melasma isn’t known to be harmful, but many consider it unattractive. Since protecting skin from the sun helps prevent skin cancer, doing your best to prevent melasma is a healthful move. Don’t let the sun mar your look. Get out the hats and sunscreen, and enjoy summer safely.


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