Melasma Overview

Melasma, also known as chloasma, is particularly common among pregnant women. See more pictures of skin problems.
© Rusyanto

If you ever suddenly notice brown patches on your skin, you might just think your freckles have joined forces or somehow become larger. Chances are, however, that the problem may actually be a condition called melasma. Of all the negative effects that the sun has on your skin, melasma is one of the worst from a cosmetic standpoint.

A fairly common skin condition, melasma affects mostly women. In fact, only 10 percent of those affected are men [source: Montemorano]. People with darker skin tones, such as those of Latin American, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African descent, are also more likely to get melasma than their fair counterparts.

The condition consists of brown to gray-brown patches, which may be connected together or occur in random splotches. The patches usually appear on sun-exposed areas of the face, such as the cheeks, bridge of the nose, forehead, chin and upper lip. They can also appear on the forearms and neck. Melasma patches are usually symmetrical, so if you have an affected area on one cheek, you most likely have one on the other cheek too. These cosmetic symptoms are the only symptoms associated with melasma.

There are three types of melasma, each classified according to the layer of skin the condition affects. Epidermal melasma affects the epidermis, or the top layer of skin. These patches are usually dark brown with well-defined borders, and they respond easily to treatment. Dermal melasma affects the second, deeper layer of skin, called the dermis. In dermal melasma the patches are lighter brown than epidermal melasma, have borders that are less precise and do not respond well to treatment. The third type of melasma is called mixed melasma, which is a combination of epidermal and dermal melasma. Mixed melasma usually improves somewhat when treated.

Doctors also call melasma "acquired hypermelanosis" or "hyperpigmentation." Additionally, some call it chloasma, or the "mask of pregnancy," because the condition is especially common in pregnant women [source: Merck].

Read on to find out more about the causes of melasma, how to treat it and why it occurs so frequently during pregnancy.