Light can be a powerful skincare tool, whether it’s an LED facial or light therapy for all skin. Light therapy can also seem a little mysterious if you’ve never done it before because light doesn’t interact with the skin in the same obvious way as, say, serum or moisturizer.
Here, we’re breaking down light therapy and melasma, explaining what they are, how they work, and experts’ advice for adding them to your skincare routine.
Melasma is sometimes referred to as the mask of pregnancy because it is sometimes triggered by an increase in pregnant women's hormones. But while the condition may be common among pregnant women, it isn’t limited to them.
“It’s not only associated with pregnancy but can affect women at all stages of life,”
Says Dr. Shadi Kourosh, director of the Pigmentary Disorder and Multi-Ethnic Skin Clinic at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. And it may last for many years.
“Women who develop melasma in their teens or 20s or 30s may see it stay around for decades,”
Says Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, senior lecturer on dermatology at Harvard Medical School.
What is Melasma
Melasma is a common skin problem. The condition causes dark, discolored patches on your skin.
It’s also called chloasma, or the “mask of pregnancy,” when it occurs in pregnant women. The condition is much more common in women than men, though men can get it too. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 90 percent of people who develop melasma are women.
Causes of Melasma
It isn’t obvious what causes melasma. Darker-skinned individuals are more at risk than those with fair skin. Estrogen and progesterone sensitivity are also associated with the condition. This means birth control pills, pregnancy, and hormone therapy can all trigger melasma. Stress and thyroid disease are also thought to be causes of melasma.
Additionally, sun exposure can cause melasma because ultraviolet rays affect the cells that control pigment (melanocytes).
How is Melasma Diagnosed?
A visual exam of the affected area is often enough to diagnose melasma. To rule out specific causes, your healthcare professional might also perform some tests.
One testing technique is a Wood’s lamp examination. This is a special kind of light that’s held up to your skin. It allows your healthcare professional to check for bacterial and fungal infections and determine how many skin layers the melasma affects. To check for any serious skin conditions, they might also perform a biopsy. This involves removing a small piece of the affected skin for testing.
Light Therapy Based Treatments
Light therapy for melasma treatment is best suited for patients with refractory melasma who failed with topical treatment or a series of chemical peels. Topical therapy takes at least three months or longer to see skin lightening, and those patients who are interested in a more rapid response could consider light therapy.
When a patient wishes for an accelerated pace of improvement, analogous to chemical peels, these modalities accelerate melanin pathways’ removal. Still, they do not target the melanin production itself.
One key point of patient counseling before laser- and light-based treatment is that these therapies can speed up removing melasma-related hyperpigmentation, but they are not cures for melasma.
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