Melasma

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Updated: Jul 14, 2016
  • Author: Willis Hughes Lyford, ENS; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Overview

Background

Melasma is an acquired hypermelanosis of sun-exposed areas. Melasma presents as symmetrically distributed hyperpigmented macules, which can be confluent or punctate. Areas that receive excessive sun exposure, including the cheeks, the upper lip, the chin, and the forehead, are the most common locations; however, melasma can occasionally occur in other sun-exposed locations. Note the images below.

Confluent hyperpigmented macules in a malar distri Confluent hyperpigmented macules in a malar distribution.
Melasma in a man. Melasma in a man.

Chloasma is a synonymous term sometimes used to describe the occurrence of melasma during pregnancy. Chloasma is derived from the Greek word chloazein, meaning "to be green." Melas, also Greek, means "black." Because the pigmentation is never green in appearance, melasma is the preferred term.

See Diagnosing Dermatoses in Pregnant Patients: 8 Cases to Test Your Skills, a Critical Images slideshow, for help identifying several types of cutaneous eruptions associated with pregnancy.

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Pathophysiology

The pathophysiology of melasma is uncertain. A direct relationship with female hormonal activity appears to be present, because melasma occurs more frequently in females than in males and commonly develops or worsens during pregnancy and with the use of oral contraceptive pills. Indeed, one half of melasma cases present initially during pregnancy. Additionally, the expression of estrogen receptors appears to be up-regulated in melasma lesions. [1] Whether hormone levels play a role in male melasma development is still a topic of debate. Other factors implicated in the pathogenesis of melasma are photosensitizing medications, mild ovarian or thyroid dysfunction, and certain cosmetics.

The most important factor in the development of melasma is exposure to sunlight. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is known to induce increased production of alpha-melanocyte–stimulating hormone and corticotropin, as well as interleukin 1 and endothelin 1, all of which contribute to increased melanin production by intraepidermal melanocytes. Fibroblasts located in the dermal layer of the skin may also contribute to the development of melasma; overexpression of the tyrosine kinase receptor c-kit and certain stem cell factors have been identified in melasma lesions, and these are believed to increase melanogenesis. [2] Without the strict avoidance of sunlight, potentially successful treatments for melasma are doomed to fail.

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Epidemiology

US frequency

Melasma is very common, affecting over 5 million people in the United States. [3] Prevalence rates range from 8.8% among females of Latino descent living in the southern United States to up to 40% in some females of southeast Asian populations. [4, 5]

Race

Persons of any race can be affected by melasma. However, melasma is much more common in constitutionally darker skin types than in lighter skin types, and it may be more common in light brown skin types, especially Latinos and Asians, from areas of the world with intense sun exposure.

Sex

Melasma is much more common in women than in men. Women are affected in 90% of cases. When men are affected, the clinical and histologic picture is identical.

Age

Melasma is rare before puberty and most commonly occurs in women during their reproductive years. Melasma is present in 15-50% of pregnant patients.

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Prognosis

Melasma has no associated mortality or morbidity. There have been no reported cases of malignant transformation, and it has not been associated with an increased risk of melanoma or other malignancies. In fact, patients with melasma are considered to be at decreased risk for melanoma. This is likely secondary to lower rates of skin malignancies in patients with a dark complexion.

Dermal pigment may take longer to resolve than epidermal pigment because no effective therapy is capable of removing dermal pigment. However, treatment should not be withheld simply because of a preponderance of dermal pigment. The source of the dermal pigment is the epidermis, and, if epidermal melanogenesis can be inhibited for long periods, the dermal pigment will not replenish and will slowly resolve.

Resistant cases or recurrences of melasma occur often and are certain if strict avoidance of sunlight is not rigidly heeded.

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Patient Education

Strict sun avoidance is essential for resolution and to prevent recurrence of melasma. Patients with melasma should apply bleaching creams to areas of darkening only. Resolution with strict sun avoidance and topical bleaching creams can take months; caution patients to expect slow but gradual lightening.

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