As you age, it’s natural to notice changes in your skin. From eczema to acne, melanoma to melasma, lots of different dermatologic conditions can occur for a million different reasons. While melasma might not be dangerous like skin cancer, it can still be bothersome for cosmetic reasons, especially when it pops up on your upper lip. Fortunately, with the help of a dermatologist, there are effective ways to minimize the appearance of a melasma “mustache.”
Before you buy any over-the-counter products that promise miraculous results, read on to figure out what melasma looks like exactly, how it can be prevented and the best ways to treat a melasma mustache, according to top dermatologists.
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What is a melasma mustache?
Melasma is an acquired hypermelanosis — meaning a darkened patch of skin that you weren’t born with — that occurs in sun-exposed areas of the face. Unlike freckles (which are usually smaller spots that show up in clusters) and sunspots (which are smaller and may show up any sun-exposed body part), melasma tends to be a larger brown splotch that appears on the face.
“It is not exclusive to the upper lip or mustache area, and can be found on the forehead, cheeks and sides of the face as well,” says Patricia Farris, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Tulane University. “The upper lip is a common spot for melasma and of particular cosmetic concern to women because it looks like a mustache.”
Causes of a melasma mustache
It’s unclear why some people develop melasma and others don’t. “Most likely there is a genetic component and then something kind of sparks it,” says Rebecca Kazin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the director of clinical research at Icon Dermatology and Aesthetics. That environmental trigger could be something like hormones or UV rays. “People get it with pregnancy sometimes, they get it with birth control or they aggravate the skin and then get sun exposure and it comes out,” says Dr. Kazin. “I think that what happens with the upper lip is women a lot of times have hair on their upper lips and they are removing it somehow, whether they’re waxing or plucking or dermaplaning, and it causes some low-level skin irritation and then they get sun exposure and it turns brown.”
Who gets melasma?
While there’s no surefire way to tell if someone will develop melasma, these seem to be the three primary risk factors, according to the American Academy of Dermatology:
- Being a woman between age 20 and 40 (potentially because of hormones)
- Having darker skin or being of Latin, Asian, Black or Native American heritage
- Having a family history of melasma
Melasma mustache treatment
“Melasma definitely can be treated, but I liken it to certain chronic things like eczema where we can kind of put it into remission, but it’s likely going to be there lurking for a period of time,” says Dr. Kazin. She recommends working with a dermatologist to come up with a treatment plan specific to your needs, especially since some options can have side effects. Physicians will often recommend starting with more mild treatments and moving to intense ones on an as-needed basis. “I generally tell patients with melasma that you need to be a little bit patient because if you try to get rid of it all at once you can temporarily get rid of it and then you can have a horrible rebound which will make it come back worse,” says Dr. Kazin.
Here are some of the options your dermatologist may consider to treat a melasma mustache:
“If you’re not using sunscreen, nothing else is going to work,” says Dr. Kazin. This is especially true if you use a hair removal technique that temporarily irritates the skin. “After you do the hair removal and your upper lip is pink, you’re like a piece of tin foil to the sun,” says Dr. Kazin.
“The problem is most people don’t know they have it until they get it,” says Dr. Kazin. “If you have a family history of it, then you might be aware to prevent it and the way that I would say to do that is with really good use of mineral sunscreens.” Sunscreens that contain iron oxides might be particularly beneficial because research shows they help block visible light — not just UV light. “We now know that visible light and infrared could also turn on pigmentation cells,” says Dr. Kazin. Additionally, hats, sun-protective clothing and some supplements may be helpful in preventing melasma, adds Dr. Farris. Just talk to your doc before you take any supplements to avoid negative side effects or interactions with medications.
When should you see a doctor
Whenever you have a skin issue that you’re concerned about, you should schedule a visit with a dermatologist, but especially if you suspect melasma because it can be difficult to treat and has a tendency to recur. “In-office procedures like chemical peels and certain lasers can be helpful for treating melasma, but should be done under the supervision of a board-certified dermatologist,” says Dr. Farris. “You need to be vigilant with sun protection or even sun avoidance if possible and be consistent with using recommended topicals and following up with your dermatologist.”
Kaitlyn Phoenix is a senior editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she reports, writes and edits research-backed health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She has more than 10 years of experience talking to top medical professionals and poring over studies to figure out the science of how our bodies work. Beyond that, Kaitlyn turns what she learns into engaging and easy-to-read stories about medical conditions, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. She also holds a B.S. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.
Board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Rhode Island Dermatology Institute
With more than a decade of experience, board-certified dermatologist Caroline Chang, M.D. is nationally recognized as a top doctor in both medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also the founder of Rhode Island Dermatology Institute, the state’s first direct care dermatology practice with the goal of providing high-quality, customized care.