What are some effective treatments for melasma?



Melasma is a common skin condition that primarily affects the face and can have significant psychological impacts. Managing melasma is challenging, requiring a long-term approach that includes avoiding aggravating factors such as oral pills and exposure to ultraviolet light. Topical therapy is a key component of treatment, with hydroquinone (HQ) being the most commonly prescribed agent. Other topical options with varying levels of evidence for clinical efficacy include azelaic acid, kojic acid, retinoids, topical steroids, glycolic acid, mequinol, and arbutin. These medications act on different stages of melanogenesis, often by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase.

Combination therapy, particularly the use of HQ, a topical steroid, and retinoic acid, is preferred for its synergistic effects and reduction of adverse effects. Prolonged use of HQ, however, may lead to side effects such as depigmentation and exogenous ochronosis. As a result, there is a growing interest in exploring safer alternatives, including newer agents derived from natural sources. However, the role of these alternatives in routine melasma management requires clarification through well-designed controlled clinical trials. Overall, an individualized and comprehensive approach that considers both topical and lifestyle factors is crucial for effectively managing melasma.

Here are some commonly used treatments for melasma:

1. Sunscreen: Sunscreen is a crucial tool in preventing melasma flare-ups and worsening hyperpigmentation. By acting as a protective barrier, sunscreen screens and blocks harmful UV rays from reaching the skin. Since UV rays are a known trigger for melasma and can intensify hyperpigmentation, wearing sunscreen serves as a portable shade that helps prevent the exacerbation of melasma and the darkening of pigmented areas. Consistent use of sunscreen is essential in any comprehensive approach to managing melasma, providing a proactive measure to shield the skin from the adverse effects of UV radiation.

Two types of sunscreen is best for melasma are:-

Sunscreens in two main varieties:-(i)Physical blockers: Physical blockers in sunscreens physically obstruct the sun’s rays from reaching the skin. Recognizable by their white, paint-like appearance, these blockers create a protective barrier on the skin’s surface. Common physical blockers include substances like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. This physical barrier reflects and scatters UV rays, offering effective sun protection. While modern formulations often minimize the visible white residue, the basic principle remains: physical blockers act as a physical barrier against harmful UV radiation, providing a visible shield against sun exposure.

(ii) Chemical blockers: Chemical blockers in sunscreens utilize nanoparticles that absorb harmful UV rays, transforming the absorbed energy into heat, which is then released. Unlike physical blockers that create a visible barrier on the skin’s surface, chemical blockers are absorbed into the skin and work at a molecular level to neutralize UV radiation. This type of sunscreen is often preferred for its lightweight and transparent feel on the skin, avoiding the characteristic white residue associated with some physical blockers. Chemical blockers offer an alternative approach to sun protection, relying on the absorption and conversion of UV energy into heat to prevent skin damage from sun exposure.

2. Topical Bleaching Agents:

(i)Hydroquinone:- Hydroquinone is a topical skin-bleaching agent used in cosmetic treatment for hyperpigmented skin conditions. It is available over the counter in a 2% cream and can be prescribed in higher concentrations by a dermatologist. The mechanism of hydroquinone involves reversible lightening of the skin by interfering with melanin production, specifically inhibiting the conversion of tyrosine to DOPA.

Common uses include treating melasma, freckles, lentigines, age spots, and acne scars. Skin sensitivity should be assessed before treatment, and if tolerated, a thin film of hydroquinone can be applied to the affected area. Regular use is necessary until desired results are achieved, and concurrent use with a strong sunscreen is recommended to maintain the effect.

Side effects, though rare, may include dryness, irritation, pruritus, erythema, and mild irritant contact dermatitis. It’s crucial to avoid contact with the eyes and use sparingly on the face. Prolonged usage has been linked to ochronosis, characterized by blue-black pigmentation with caviar-like papules on the skin. If no improvement is observed within 3 months, consultation with a dermatologist is advised.

(ii)Tretinoin and Corticosteroids:- The combination of tretinoin and corticosteroids is sometimes used in the treatment of melasma, a common hyperpigmentation disorder affecting the skin.

(i)Tretinoin (Retinoid):

  • Mechanism: Tretinoin is a derivative of vitamin A and works by promoting skin cell turnover. It enhances the shedding of pigmented skin cells and promotes the growth of new, lighter-colored skin cells.
  • Role in Melasma Treatment: Tretinoin helps to fade hyperpigmented areas and improve the overall texture of the skin. It is particularly effective when used in combination with other agents.


  • Mechanism: Corticosteroids have anti-inflammatory properties and can suppress the immune response. In the context of melasma, they can help reduce inflammation and inhibit the production of melanin.
  • Role in Melasma Treatment: Corticosteroids are often included in combination therapies to reduce skin irritation and inflammation associated with other agents, such as tretinoin. They may also help to enhance the overall efficacy of the treatment.

3. Chemical Peels:

  1. Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA): A chemical commonly used in peels to address skin concerns, including hyperpigmentation.
  2. Glycolic Acid: An alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that exfoliates the skin, promoting cell turnover and improving skin texture.
  3. Salicylic Acid: A beta hydroxy acid (BHA) with exfoliating properties, often used to treat acne and hyperpigmentation.
  4. Jessner’s Solution: A combination of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol, designed to penetrate deeper layers of the skin.
  5. Tretinoin: A retinoid that promotes skin renewal and is sometimes incorporated into chemical peels for its exfoliating effects.
  6. Proprietary Blends (e.g., VI Peel): Some peels, like the VI peel, use proprietary blends that often include a combination of the aforementioned acids. These blends are formulated for specific skin concerns, such as melasma.

4. Laser Therapy: Laser therapy, particularly Q-switched Nd:YAG laser, has shown effectiveness in treating melasma, a common pigmentation disorder.

(i)Q-switched Nd:YAG The Q-switched Nd:YAG Laser is a versatile tool for treating pigmentation-related concerns, such as melasma. It operates with two key wavelengths, 532nm and 1064nm, allowing it to target pigmentation at both superficial and deep levels beneath the skin. The laser emits high-energy pulses of light in the near-infrared spectrum, and this energy is absorbed by excess melanin in the skin. As a result, the melanin heats up and breaks down into smaller particles, facilitating the body’s natural processes to eliminate them. This laser therapy is effective in addressing pigmentation concerns, providing a targeted and precise treatment for improved skin appearance.

(ii)Picosecond laser: Picosecond laser technology is a newer and more effective approach for treating melasma. These lasers emit ultra-short light pulses in picoseconds, targeting pigmented cells with high precision and minimal damage to surrounding tissues. Treatment sessions typically last 20-30 minutes, and the number of sessions required depends on the severity of melasma and individual patient needs. Picosecond lasers deliver ultra-short pulses in picoseconds for precise targeting of pigmented cells. The technology is efficient in treating melasma, and it is considered safe, particularly for individuals with dark skin tones. Multiple sessions are usually required for optimal results, with the exact number determined by the severity of melasma and individual patient goals. Picosecond laser therapy carries a low risk of adverse effects, such as hypopigmentation or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

(iii)Fractional resurfacing lasers: Fractional resurfacing lasers offer a non-invasive treatment option for melasma by creating controlled injuries in the skin to stimulate natural healing. This process targets the epidermis and dermis, releasing hyperpigmented cells and promoting the growth of new, healthy skin cells. Fractional resurfacing lasers provide a non-invasive method for treating melasma, avoiding the need for surgical procedures. The lasers create tiny, controlled injuries in the skin to trigger the body’s natural healing response. By targeting the epidermis and dermis, these lasers stimulate the body’s natural healing process, releasing hyperpigmented cells. Over time, the treated skin is replaced with new, healthy skin cells, contributing to the reduction of melasma’s appearance.

(iv)Intense Pulsed Light (IPL): Intense Pulsed Light (IPL)is a non-invasive laser therapy effective for treating melasma by using a broad spectrum of light wavelengths. It targets and breaks up pigmented cells in the skin without causing harm to surrounding tissues, making it suitable for those with treatment-resistant melasma. During an IPL treatment, a handheld device delivers pulses of light energy to the skin, which is absorbed by excess melanin, leading to its breakdown and elimination through natural processes. Choosing the best laser treatment for melasma depends on individual needs and goals. It is crucial to consult with a qualified dermatologist or laser specialist for personalized advice, as improper use of lasers may worsen melasma.

5. Microdermabrasion: Microdermabrasion is a cosmetic skin treatment that involves exfoliating the top layer of the skin using a specialized device. This procedure, typically performed with a handheld wand emitting fine crystals or a diamond tip, aims to remove dead skin cells and impurities. Microdermabrasion exfoliates the skin, effectively removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores. The treatment stimulates collagen production, aiding in the reduction of fine lines, wrinkles, and scars. Microdermabrasion enhances the overall texture and tone of the skin, resulting in a smoother and more even complexion. The procedure is generally painless, making it a comfortable option for individuals seeking skin rejuvenation. Microdermabrasion can address various skin conditions, including acne scars, fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and age spots.It serves as a non-invasive alternative to more aggressive skin resurfacing treatments like chemical peels or laser therapy. In some cases, microdermabrasion is used for melasma treatment, contributing to the management of this pigmentation disorder. Particularly for individuals seeking milder treatments, microdermabrasion provides an alternative for achieving skin resurfacing goals.

6. Topical Antioxidants: Topical antioxidants can be a valuable addition to the management of melasma, helping to address oxidative stress and provide skin benefits.(i)Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)(ii)Vitamin E (Tocopherol)(iii)Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)(iv)Alpha Arbutin(v)Resveratrol(vi)Ferulic Acid(vii)Licorice Extract(viii)Green Tea Extract(ix)Soy Isoflavones

7. Hormonal Therapies: Hormonal therapies can be considered in the management of melasma, a common skin condition characterized by hyperpigmentation. While these treatments are not suitable for everyone, they may be considered in specific cases where hormonal factors play a significant role.(i)Oral Contraceptives(ii)Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) (iii)Topical Estrogen Creams(iv)Anti-Androgen Medications (v)Thyroid Medications