Pregnancy brings on a host of physical changes. Talk to each person and they can give you a completely different account of the various symptoms they experienced since the moment they first saw that positive pregnancy test. The reason, of course, being pregnancy interacts with everyone’s body chemistry differently. That being said, not all symptoms are created equal. Sometimes the hormones released during the body’s HCG surge lead to some freaky sh*t. For some, this weirdness comes via a condition called pica where women get the desire to eat anything from dirt to toilet paper — but that’s a story for a different day.
One of the less gross but equally strange pregnancy conditions is melasma. It’s not as bad as some pregnancy problems that evolve as the weeks progress, but it stills sucks. Believe me, I had it BAD. And maybe you have it too, which is why you’re reading this article. First, let’s get the important part out of the way: it’s totally harmless and totally normal. But, you probably still have some follow-up questions. So without further ado …
What is melasma (aka “pregnancy mask”) and what is the main cause of it?
“The mask of pregnancy,” formally know as melasma, is a condition experienced by anywhere from 50-75% of women. It is a specific form of hyperpigmentation that is most commonly associated with pregnancy. It’s caused by the increase in estrogen that happens during pregnancy. It’s often diagnosed through random dark blotches on various areas of the face like the forehead, cheeks, and lip area.
“The mask” can also target facial marks like moles and freckles causing them to become more pronounced. In my case, a facial mark that had been on my face since childhood went from being the color of my skin, which is typically caramel in color, to nearly black. Interestingly, the same chemicals that are responsible for melasma are responsible for the well-known linea negra that can be observed on the bellies of many women during pregnancy.
Who’s at risk for getting melasma?
Melasma is thought to be triggered by a combination of UV-ray exposure and hormones. Due to higher levels of darker pigment, it is more common in women of color and individuals with brown-based complexions.
Other triggers include: birth control use and hormonal therapies, particularly when an increase in estrogen is involved. Frequent exposure to heat and visible light and contribute to the spreading of this condition.
What is the best way to treat melasma?
The best treatment for the “mask” depends on the cause. If it is birth control-related, one may choose to switch methods. If the cause is pregnancy, the symptoms typically go away either closely after pregnancy or when the individual is done breastfeeding. For individuals who cannot trace the condition to a specific cause, chemical peels and skin lighteners are often the preferred course of action.
Because melasma can be linked to high levels of sun exposure, wearing mid to high SPF sunscreen might prevent the condition from worsening in the meantime. (Consider grabbing a tinted moisturizer that offers both skin-evening coverage and sun protection.) Wearing long-sleeved, light clothing, as well as large sunglasses and a wide-brimmed sunhat also can’t hurt.
Some research suggests that there is a link between having a diet that is low in folic acid can lead to struggles with melasma. In that case, promoting good nutritional habits and having a diet that is filled with oranges, whole grain bread, and lefty greens might combat some of its effects. In other words, pregnancy is not the time to start skipping out on your prenatal vitamins.
Often, melasma goes away on its own once your hormones have re-regulated. As far as actual “treatments” — like those aforementioned skin lightening creams — you best wait until after pregnancy and breastfeeding to begin a regimen.
Remember: This too shall pass.
In my case, six months after giving birth, I pulled the area off similar to how one would remove a scab (yucky, I know. But it worked for me).
Having had “the mask” myself for many months, I can attest to the way the change in appearance could affect one’s self-image and self-esteem. I got through it by remembering my body was changing for a reason. It didn’t solve all my insecurities, but it helped.
If you are particularly concerned about pregnancy-related hyperpigmentation, it can be helpful to schedule an appointment with a doctor or specialist, like a dermatologist. In some rare cases, melasma doesn’t fade and may require additional treatment.
Eat right, protect yourself from the sun, and keep moving. The mask shall pass.