Melasma, a common form of skin discoloration that typically appears as dark-brown patches on the forehead, cheeks, nose, and upper lip, can be exceedingly frustrating to get rid of. It affects both men and women (and can flare up even if you’ve gone years — or your whole life — without a breakout), but according to Derma di Colore founder Dr. Carlos A. Charles, it “is more prevalent in women with darker skin tones that tan easily, but it can be seen across most skin complexions.” Two main factors that contribute to melasma are exposure to UV light and hormone changes, so “summertime and pregnancy are common times when melasma flares,” adds Dr. Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group.
While Charles, Greenfield, and the five other dermatologists we talked to say a combination of prescription-strength medications and in-office treatments is always the most comprehensive way to treat melasma, there are over-the-counter topical products you can use to help prevent and fade it. Below, our experts’ recommendations for the most effective over-the-counter ways to treat and prevent melasma, including a couple of products specifically picked for pregnant women.
Best overall product to prevent melasma
“Sun and light exposure is the most common reason for the appearance of melasma,” explains Dr. Morgan Robach of LM Medical NYC. Therefore, the first — and most essential — defense, according to all of our experts, is to liberally apply a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with zinc or titanium every single day, no matter the weather. Three of our experts name EltaMD’s moisturizing UV Clear SPF 46, a perennial favorite of dermatologists that has received top marks in several Strategist sunscreen roundups. “This sunscreen-moisturizer combination is good for daily use, as it is lightweight and does not leave any significant visible residue behind even on darker skin tones,” says Charles. It’s specifically formulated for the face, which our experts say is where melasma is most likely to strike. Two of the three dermatologists who recommended EltaMD suggest using the brand’s tinted formula, which offers the same skin protection and will help even out dark patches of melasma that may have already formed.
Dermatologist and founder and chief creative officer of DERMADoctor Dr. Audrey Kunin recommends this sunscreen from Supergoop!, which, like the EltaMD, is a physical blocker that contains zinc oxide. She likes mineral formulas because they’re “gentler on the skin and the environment,” and this one in particular contains antioxidants like winter cherry and blueberry extract, which help to protect skin from environmental stressors like pollution. If you want SPF and coverage both, she recommends DERMADoctor DD Cream, which has a bit of a tint and gives skin a dewy finish.
Best moisturizer for preventing melasma
“It’s a multitasking day cream good for those who want to prevent melasma and are also interested in treating fine lines,” says Dr. Tess Mauricio, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of M Beauty Clinic. The lightweight cream gives SPF 30 protection and protects the skin against environmental damage. Miami-based dermatologist Annie Gonzalez says this is a favorite of hers and is popular with her clients, who like that it can address a few different concerns at once.
Best sunscreen for pregnant women to prevent melasma
If you’re pregnant, Greenfield recommends this 100 percent mineral sunscreen — which is fragrance, paraben, and oil free — to help prevent melasma breakouts. “It’s formulated to be pregnancy safe, which can help prevent flares during pregnancy,” she says.
Best overall product to treat melasma
Hydroquinone is an FDA-approved skin-lightening agent that works by inhibiting the skin’s pigment-producing cells. Six of our experts named it as an extremely effective way to treat melasma flare-ups, especially via products that combine hydroquinone with other active ingredients like exfoliating acids. Dr. Y. Claire Chang of Union Square Laser Dermatology likes Ambi Fade Cream, in particular, because it contains vitamin E and lactic acid to help with simultaneously exfoliating and softening skin. But, she warns, it isn’t an overnight fix or something to be used indefinitely. “It can take two to three months to see results,” she says, “and should not be used for more than three to six months at a time.” You should apply a thin layer only to the melasma itself, though, not to the rest of the skin, and wear SPF consistently to make sure no new melasma forms. And if your melasma pops up during pregnancy, you should wait until after giving birth before applying this or any other product formulated with hydroquinone.
Best serums to treat melasma
Vitamin-C serum packs a major punch: It protects the skin against environmental damage and lightens dark patches, the latter being a big reason why three of our experts suggested using it to treat melasma. “I always recommend topical vitamin C, my favorite being SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic,” says Dr. Justine Hextall of Tarrant Street Clinic in the U.K. “This formulation is very stable, which is important as vitamin C is easily degraded by light and heat exposure.” To further prevent degradation, Hextal suggests storing the serum in a cool, dark drawer. Dr. Sam Bunting, the founder of Dr. Sam’s Skincare, also recommends using vitamin-C serum and suggests layering it under sunscreen in the morning so it can help protect skin from free-radical damage. And Bae — who says she is very conservative when it comes to recommending products for pregnant women — says a serum like this is safe to use when expecting.
Another affordable vitamin-C option is this serum from Good (Skin) Days, which Chang recommends. “It can help brighten the skin and prevent pigmentation with a combination of vitamin C, niacinamide, and licorice-root extract,” she says. Dr. Chang also likes vitamin C for melasma prevention because it helps to protect the skin from UV damage (a common melasma trigger) and oxidative stress. This serum in particular is formulated with 10 percent pure vitamin C, which helps with hyperpigmentation, and the other ingredients, including niacinamide and licorice-root extract, work to further brighten and even out skin.
Chang likes this serum from SkinCeuticals, which reduces hyperpigmentation and discoloration and includes ingredients like kojic acid, niacinamide, and traxenamic acid. “Kojic acid effectively blocks and prevents melanin production, while niacinamide helps with skin lightening,” she says. “Tranexamic acid is the newer kid on the block that has been shown in small studies to very effectively help reduce pigmentation when applied topically.”
For existing melasma, board-certified dermatologist Fran Cook-Bolden likes to use treatments both morning and night. For the mornings, she recommends ISDIN Pigment Expert, a highly concentrated serum formulated to target discoloration. It includes glycolic acid, which exfoliates and evens out skin tone; licorice-root extract for brightening; and a pigment corrector.
Cook-Bolden pairs it with ISDIN Night Peel, a serum that contains glycolic acid and other exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids. The combo, she says, has been impressive. “I’ve been using the combination for several months with amazing results,” she says. “They augment each other and focus on various areas in the pigment-development cascade and in the destruction of pigment.”
Best moisturizer to treat melasma
This moisturizer, recommended by Robach, uses the combined power of skin brighteners niacinamide and tranexamic acid to fade discoloration. “SkinMedica Lytera is a moisturizer that has antioxidants that will help skin even out (even if tan!) and can be used in women that are pregnant,” she says. Dr. Nancy Samolitis, the co-founder and medical director of Facile Dermatology + Boutique in L.A., recommends it as a way to sooth melasma eruptions. “Lytera is packed with gentle brighteners and can be used in the morning with an antioxidant serum.” Dr. Nikki Hill, founder of Skin of Culture and Hair Center in Atlanta, recommends this in conjunction with prescription-strength hydroquinone. She also recommends using moisturizers for maintenance in conjunction with peels and lasers.
Hill is a big fan of Scientis Cyspera, which she came across in a dermatology journal five years ago. The topical cream’s main ingredient is cysteamine hydrochloride, which is effective at fading discoloration and is well tolerated because it doesn’t include hydroquinone or retinol, which can be irritating and detrimental after long-term use.
Best product to use at night to prevent and treat melasma
Four of our dermatologists suggested using a retinoid to both prevent and combat melasma flare-ups. Because retinoids (topical agents derived from vitamin A) encourage cell turnover and inhibit tyrosinase — the enzyme our skin needs to produce melanin — they can lead to “brighter, more even-toned skin,” according to Bunting. Since they make your skin more sun-sensitive, the experts say you should use retinoids only as a part of your nightly routine. Many are available only by prescription, but Bae cites Differin, which contains the retinoid adapalene, as an affordable over-the-counter option — except for pregnant women, who should not use any retinoids, according to the dermatologists we talked to.