As if the changes in your belly, eating habits and number of daily trips to the bathroom weren't enough, pregnancy can also wreak havoc on your skin. When you're pregnant, you may find yourself dealing with breakouts worse than the ones you had in high school, suddenly sensitive skin or even weird dark patches of skin on your face and body known as hyperpigmentation.
Melasma is the most common form of pregnancy hyperpigmentation. It's easy to recognize because it appears as uniform, symmetrical patches of darker color on your upper lip, forehead or nose. Some women get it in all three places, creating a mask-like appearance and earning melasma its nickname "the mask of pregnancy." Some women also get melasma when they're taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, but it's most common in pregnant women, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Melasma is often caused by excess estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that surge in production during pregnancy, explains Tina Alster, clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center, in "O, The Oprah Magazine." If you're pregnant, your raging hormones are probably to blame for your hyperpigmentation, but Alster points out that accumulated sun damage over time can also cause melasma.
Melasma isn't a serious problem in the sense that it can negatively affect your health or your pregnancy, but if your hyperpigmentation is very dark or obvious, it can have a major impact on your appearance and self-esteem, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center. For most women, melasma fades naturally when your hormones settle back down to their normal levels after your baby is born.
Most of the treatments for melasma aren't recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women because research hasn't confirmed their effects on developing and nursing babies, explains Deborah Sarnoff, associate clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center, in "Fit Pregnancy" magazine. The best thing you can do is apply sunscreen generously every day to keep the problem from getting worse -- sun exposure exacerbates pregnancy hyperpigmentation. If the discoloration bothers you, blend a little bronzer with your regular makeup to even out your skin tone.
If your melasma doesn't fade naturally after pregnancy, you can do several things to address it once your baby is weaned, says Saroff. Creams containing the more potent hydroquinone or gentler kojic acid can significantly diminish dark patches, but be aware that hydroquinone can cause skin irritation. If you don't want to self-treat, Alster says chemical peels and laser therapy can be very effective for treating hyperpigmentation, but you should make sure your dermatologist has experience with treating hyperpigmentation since careless treatment can make the problem worse.