Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/08/2020
If you’ve noticed gray-brown patches of skin developing after you spend time in the sun, you could have a common skin condition called melasma.
Melasma is one of the most common skin conditions for women. It affects around five million people in the United States alone, with women accounting for as much as 90 percent of all melasma cases.
Most people with melasma notice blotchy, gray-brown patches of skin on their upper lip, chin, cheeks and forehead. It’s also possible for melasma to affect your neck, chest, shoulders and arms.
If your skin is sensitive to melasma, it can become blotchy and darkened for a large variety of reasons. Factors such as hormonal fluctuations, pregnancy and stress can all trigger melasma, often quite suddenly.
One of the most common melasma triggers is sunlight. If you have melasma and spend time in direct sunlight, your skin has a higher risk of breaking out.
Below, we’ve explained how sunlight can affect your skin if you have melasma, as well as what you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing melasma breakouts after spending time outside enjoying the sun.
Right now, scientists don’t know exactly why melasma occurs. However, current research points to three main culprits: genetics, hormones and ultraviolet (UV) light.
Before we get into the third factor, let’s look at the first two. If other members of your family have melasma, you’re more likely to get it yourself. While scientists haven’t completely worked out the hereditary component of melasma, there’s a clear link from parents to their children.
You’re also more likely to get melasma if you have a darker skin tone. Women of African, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean or Latin American descent all have the highest chance of developing melasma.
From a hormonal perspective, research indicates that fluctuations in your body’s estrogen and androgen hormones might trigger melasma. This is believed to be the reason why melasma is so common during pregnancy.
Finally, there’s a link between ultraviolet light exposure and melasma. When you spend time in direct sunlight, the ultraviolet light stimulates your melanin-producing cells, which are known as melanocytes.
These cells are responsible for maintaining your skin tone. When you spend time outdoors in a sunny environment, they stimulate melanin production to protect your skin and strengthen your ability to tolerate UV exposure.
If you’re prone to melasma, even a small amount of UV radiation from the sun can cause your melanocytes to work overtime, causing certain patches of your skin to become darker than the skin surrounding them.
Melasma is usually symmetrical, meaning that if you spot discoloration on one side of your face, it will usually appear on the other side as well. Certain areas of your face can be more sensitive to melasma than others, resulting in different levels of skin pigmentation and blotchiness.
While it can be stressful to deal with melasma after spending time in the sun, there are options available to make your melasma-affected less visible and prevent breakouts in the future.
The easiest way to avoid UV-induced melasma is to spend less time in direct sunlight. If it’s hot and sunny, try to spend most of your time in covered, shady areas where you’re protected from the sun. You can also:
Wear a hat. Melasma tends to affect your cheeks, forehead, upper lip and chin, making it important to protect your face from the sun. If you need to spend time in bright, sunny areas, wear a wide-brimmed hat that keeps your face as shaded as possible.
If you’re prone to melasma on your forehead or around your eyes, a pair of sunglasses can also help to shield your face from UV radiation and keep your skin protected.
Use sunscreen. While sunscreen won’t completely protect your skin from UV radiation, it can make a world of difference. Apply an SPF 30+ sunscreen before you spend time in direct sunlight and you’ll reduce your risk of triggering a melasma breakout.
If you’re outside for the entire day, make sure you reapply sunscreen regularly to keep your skin protected. It’s best to use a moisture-resistant sunscreen, which will keep you protected even if you sweat during the daytime.
Limit your sun exposure. While you don’t need to avoid sunlight completely, limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun to 10 or 15 minutes per day can help to lower your risk of getting melasma (or worsening existing melasma-prone skin).
Avoid irritating skincare products. Skincare products and cosmetics that irritate your skin could potentially make your melasma worse, even if you take steps to avoid direct sunlight and protect your skin.
Because melasma can also be triggered by hormones, it’s important to tell your healthcare provider that you have melasma if you use hormonal birth control. Some birth control pills can make UV-induced melasma worse, causing you to experience worse breakouts after you spend time in the sun.
It’s a common situation for melasma sufferers — after limiting your sun exposure, wearing the largest hat you can find and rubbing as much SPF 15+ sunscreen as possible onto your skin, you still end up with dark, blotchy melasma patches after spending time outside.
While melasma will eventually fade on its own, dealing with blotchy, discolored skin can be a frustrating process.
Luckily, melasma is treatable. Below, we’ve listed the most effective science-backed melasma treatments that you can use to lighten blotchy patches and restore your normal skin tone after spending time in the sun.
Hydroquinone is a skin lightening agent that reduces your skin’s production of melanin, helping you to lighten areas affected by melasma. It’s one of the most common and effective treatments for melasma and other forms of skin discoloration.
Several studies, including a 2013 study that lasted for 12 weeks, show that hydroquinone works well as a melasma treatment. It also has a good safety record, with few major side effects other than itchiness and skin irritation.
Our guide to hydroquinone and melasma goes into more detail about how hydroquinone works as a melasma treatment, as well as how you can use it to lighten patches of melasma-affected skin after spending time in the sun.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid. It’s commonly used as an acne and anti-aging treatment, although it’s also effective as a treatment for melasma.
Used topically, tretinoin works by causing your body to replace old skin cells with new cells at a faster pace. This can help reduce the visibility of melasma and make hyperpigmented areas of skin become less obvious.
Tretinoin is usually prescribed in combination with hydroquinone, often as a combination topical cream. Our guide to tretinoin and melasma looks into the benefits of tretinoin in more detail, as well as how you can use tretinoin to treat sun-induced melasma.
Corticosteroids are occasionally used to treat severe melasma, usually alongside tretinoin and hydroquinone. Some melasma creams contain all three ingredients — these are widely known as “triple creams.”
Used topically, corticosteroids can reduce inflammation and make melasma-affected skin less visually obvious. Because of their potential for side effects, corticosteroids like hydrocortisone are usually only prescribed for short-term use.
Kojic acid is a chelation agent that can reduce your body’s production of melanin, making the darkened, blotchy appearance of melasma less visible.
As a naturally-occuring byproduct of fermented rice, kojic acid is a popular natural treatment for melasma that’s often used as an alternative to medications like tretinoin and hydroquinone.
Kojic acid as an ingredient in over-the-counter skin creams designed to treat melasma. Although it’s less effective than tretinoin and hydroquinone, most studies show kojic acid does produce mild, noticeable benefits as a melasma treatment.
Worried that you might have melasma? You’re not alone. Melasma is one of the most common skin conditions, affecting more than five million people in the United States alone.
Although 90 percent of people with melasma are women, melasma can develop in both women and men. Our guide to melasma goes into more detail on how and why melasma develops, as well as what you can do to treat and prevent melasma breakouts.