If you have melasma then you know how it can strike at the heart of your self-esteem. It’s a skin condition that affects millions worldwide and can be very difficult to get rid of. Melasma commonly manifests as brown or grayish-brown patches of skin on the face. However, it can appear anywhere on your body, especially in places often exposed to sunlight.
While melasma isn’t only caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, UV radiation is a major player. Not only can UV cause melasma in the first place, but it can exacerbate a pre-existing condition. This is why many sufferers of melasma may notice their symptoms worsen in the summer.
Though this skin condition can be persistent and disheartening, there are things you can do to address it. However, before you can start to treat your melasma, it’s important to understand it. Read on to learn about the relationship between UV rays and melasma and how you can treat and prevent it.
Radiation and Melanogenesis
Soaking up the sun can be great for your physical and mental well-being. But get too much and it will do you more harm than good. Sunlight is comprised of three main elements: visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light. And the straight-line paths along which light energy travels are called rays. UV rays, then, are a component of sunlight and can still be divided further.
UV rays are classified into three types: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC isn’t very important to melasma as it’s largely absorbed into the ozone layer upon contact. But UVA and UVB reach the Earth’s surface and affect your skin’s physiology. UVA rays have long wavelengths that can penetrate deep into your skin. UVB wavelengths are still relatively long but are largely responsible for sunburn and other immediate skin damage.
In response to sun exposure, your skin produces melanin, the pigment largely responsible for skin coloration. The more melanin you produce, the darker your skin becomes. The act of producing melanin is called melanogenesis, and it’s a completely normal process.
However, UV rays, particularly UVA, can overstimulate melanocytes — cells specialized to produce melanin. Melanin produced by overstimulated melanocytes is then transported to surrounding skin cells, resulting in hyperpigmentation. If this hyperpigmentation is unable to revert, it’s known as melasma. While melanocyte overstimulation is one of the main ways UV exposure can cause melasma, it’s not the only way.
Hormones, Inflammation, and Sunburn
Melasma is sometimes referred to as “the mask of pregnancy.” This is because hormonal imbalances can also trigger and exacerbate melasma. And women typically experience a conflux of hormones during pregnancy, especially during childbirth. As you might suspect, UV rays can also cause hormone imbalances, triggering and further complicating melasma.
UV can exacerbate hormonal influence in your body by stimulating hormone receptors on melanocytes. This increases your melanocytes’ sensitivity to hormone signals, which in turn increases melanin production. Hormonal sensitivity combined with the aforementioned effects of overstimulated melanocytes creates an internal environment highly conducive to melasma formation.
Additionally, UV rays can affect melasma through sunburn. UVB rays are primarily responsible for sunburn and trigger your body’s immune system response. This response manifests as inflammation, usually referred to as sunburn.
Inflammation is another stimulator of melanocytes. And the worse your burn is, the more inflamed your body is. In turn, the more inflamed your body is from UVB, the more active your melanocytes become. This compounding cycle, when combined with hormonal sensitivity and overstimulation can create a perfect storm for melasma.
Prevention and Treatment
Though melasma is not only caused by UV exposure, it’s important to limit yours. Even if you don’t have melasma now, protecting your skin decreases the chance you’ll develop it. The cornerstone of melasma prevention in terms of UV exposure involves comprehensive sun protection. Now, this doesn’t mean you should never go outside again. Because some sunlight is actually good for you, stimulating vitamin D synthesis and serotonin regulation among other benefits.
Instead, you want to focus on limiting your time spent directly in the sun and protecting your skin while you’re in it. One of the best ways to protect your skin is to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor. Of course, how much SPF you need depends on how dark your skin is naturally. Aim to use an SPF of at least 30 or 50. The lighter your skin, the higher the SPF should be.
Nowadays there are many moisturizers that include SPF, making it fairly simple to add to your routine. Besides sunscreen, you can also wear lightweight protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses when you’re outdoors. Like moisturizers, there are also clothes these days that add greater protection against the sun. These clothes have a higher average thread count and tighter weave, significantly limiting the light that reaches your skin beneath.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for melasma. So addressing yours will take some trial and error. Medications with active ingredients like hydroquinone, retinoids, and vitamin C can reduce melanin production and lighten existing pigmentation. When used in conjunction with increased skin protection, these treatments can prevent symptoms from being exacerbated.
A Major Player
While melasma doesn’t solely owe its existence to UV rays, they play a large role in its onset and development. UVA rays reach deep into the skin and irritate melanocytes while UVB rays increase their hormone sensitivity and activity via inflammation. While limiting your sun exposure won’t necessarily treat your melasma, it can prevent it from getting worse.
To actively treat your melasma, give various medications a try. Some work by inhibiting your body’s ability to synthesize melanin while others promote cell turnover and exfoliation. Try different ones to see which works best for your unique body chemistry.
Melasma can be a challenging skin condition to treat. It may take some time before you start to see results. Do your best to stay disciplined, motivate yourself, and know that the dream of clear skin is possible to achieve.