What You Should Know
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|Skin Pigment Disorders||
Skin pigment (the color of your skin) is determined by melanin, a substance produced naturally by the body that is also responsible for the color of our eyes and hair. Melanin plays a large role in protecting our skin from the sun. When the skin “tans” with exposure to sunlight, the change in skin pigment is caused by an increase in the body’s production of melanin to further protect the body from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.
Rarely, there are people who are born with no ability to produce melanin and that disorder is called albinism. Albinos have white (uncolored) hair, very pale skin and pink eyes. This skin pigment disorder is unfortunately uncurable.
Other skin pigment disorders are more common and can be treated either medically or cosmetically. People with skin pigment disorders react differently to sunlight in most cases and therefore should avoid direct exposure to the sun without protection.
There are many different causes of skin pigment disorders. Some are genetic, such as albinism and vitiligo, a condition that causes white patches to appear on the skin due to the loss of some of the pigment-producing cells in the skin. Some are due to changes in the skin’s chemistry or from interaction with environmental damage.
One of the more common skin pigment disorders is melasma. Melasma causes dark patches on the face, usually in a symmetrical pattern. Melasma can be triggered by hormonal changes during pregnancy (when it is known as the “mask of pregnancy”). It can also be caused by a person’s cumulative sun exposure during their lifetime. Melasma does not cause any medical concern and is more of a cosmetic problem.
The Bottom Line
Many skin pigment disorders are untreatable, especially those with genetic origins. Melasma can be treated with varied results. Treatment can consist of laser resurfacing, chemical peels or lightening creams.
Laser resurfacing and chemical peels remove the uppermost layers of skin to reveal newer skin beneath. The newer skin has not had as much exposure to the increased levels of melanin that cause melasma so skin appears lighter and skin tone more even.
There are also a slew of topical creams containing lightening agents on the market today. Many are based on the ingredient hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is a controversial ingredient and has been banned in the European Union, Japan, and Australia because of the concern that it may be a carcinogen. Other countries may well follow suit and, in fact, in 2006, the U.S. FDA proposed a ban on products containing hydroquinone. Fortunately, there are other topical applications on the market that contain other lightening agents. The results of treating melasma are mixed and depend on the individual. Melasma that cannot be diminished through treatment can be covered with makeup.