Melasma vs Hyperpigmentation

Published: Oct 2019 Updated: Jun 2021
Dr. Ailynne Marie Mendoza Vergara-Wijangco

They may seem to look alike. They act alike. They’re caused by similar things.1 However, the difference between hyperpigmentation and melasma runs deeper than you might think. Here we’ll take a closer look at both – causes, triggers and treatments – to help you distinguish one from the other.

First Up, Hyperpigmentation

What is it?

Hyperpigmentation can refer to any darkening of the skin.2  While typically harmless, it can sometimes be a symptom of another underlying medical condition.

Why does it happen?

Hyperpigmentation happens as a result of over-stimulation of the melanocytes (the cells responsible for producing colour in the skin).  Over-stimulation leads to over-production of pigment, causing an overflow into the lower levels of the skin. The result is dark patches of skin.3

What causes it?

The biggest risk factors of hyperpigmentation are sun exposure and inflammation, as both are responsible for the overproduction of melanocytes. The greater your exposure to the sun, the greater your risk of developing hyperpigmentation.4

What does it look like?

Post blemish breakouts.  Sun spots. Freckles. Eczema or psoriasis discolouration. These are all the children of hyperpigmentation. It can occur in small patches, cover large areas, it can even affect the entire body.5

Who is most at risk?

Most types of hyperpigmentation, with the exception of melasma (more on that later) affect both men and women equally. 6

Now, Let's Look at Melasma

What is it?

A common pigmentation disorder and ugly sister of the aforementioned hyperpigmentation ailments, melasma beats to its own drum. Similar to hyperpigmentation, melasma causes dark spots on the skin.7 The difference is in the cause.

What causes it?

There are a number of potential triggers, sun exposure being an obvious culprit. Skin care products can also play a role, for example if your skin is allergic to certain ingredients within one of your products, you could develop pigmented contact dermatitis (or dark, scaly patches of skin in the affected area). But one of the biggest triggers has to do with hormonal fluctuations – this is what truly sets melasma apart from hyperpigmentation. 8

All Melasma are hyperpigmentation but not all hyperpigmentation are melasma. Another factor that sets Melasma from Hyperpigmentation is their prognosis. Hyperpigmentation can be cured permanently as long as you identify its cause and address the hyperpigmentation after, while melasma has no permanent cure but can be managed in many ways.

Genetics may play a role as well, since people who have darker skin, as well as those with close relatives affected by melasma, are more likely to develop it themselves.

What does it look like?

Melasma looks like over-pigmented brown or gray patches on the skin. The most common area? The face, unfortunately – the bridge of the nose, forehead, cheeks and the upper lip. Melasma might also show up on the forearms, neck and shoulders but they aren’t as common as the facial area.9

Why does it happen?

Skin care professionals still don’t truly understand why melasma occurs, but more and more evidence backs up the theory that there’s a malfunction in the melanocytes.10 As in the case of hyperpigmentation, it’s believed that this malfunction causes the melanocytes to produce too much colour, resulting in unsightly dark patches.

Who is most at risk?

In the case of melasma, women11 are the most at risk as they are the most prone to hormonal shifts, ie. pregnancy or taking birth control pills. That’s why you may have heard the term melasma referred to as “pregnancy mask”.12

To learn more about melasma, check out our article: Behind the Mask of Melasma

Is There a Solution?

Here’s the best one, but you’re not going to like it: avoid the sun. We all love a healthy summer glow but sun exposure brings out the dark spots even more (worse still if you’re on birth control).13 If it’s impossible to avoid the sun completely (which is kind of impossible) we recommend a broad-spectrum SPF of 30 or higher. This one is our favourite for daily UV protection.

Your next best option after prevention? Correction. There are a few in-clinic approaches that can help with hyperpigmentation and melasma such as laser treatments or dermaplaning. For an at-home solution, look for a treatment serum or cream with one of two key ingredients:

Tranexamic Acid – a powerful compound used in the treatment of melasma and UV-induced pigmentation, it lightens the appearance of dark spots and visibly evens skin tone.

Niacinamide – an antioxidant that works to prevent moisture loss and smooth the surface texture to brighten dull or tired skin.

The Corrector is Dr. Rivers treatment serum to help break up the melanin pigments that cause dark spots and uneven skin tone. It also helps keep the hyperpigmentation away in the future.

Beta-Thujaplicin - present in all Riversol products is a proven anti-oxidant, and anti-melanogenic ingredient. Beta-T inhibits the formation of pigment by blocking the enzyme tyrosinase, acting as nature’s brightening agent18.


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  8. Yuri T. Jadotte, Robert A. Schwartz (2010) Melasma: Insights and Perspectives. Retrieved from: Acta Dermatovenerol Croat  2010;18(2): 124-129
  9. Vasanop Vachiramon MD,Poonkiat Suchonwanit MD, Kunlawat Thadanipon MD (2012) Melasma in Men. Retrieved from:
  10. Journal of Dermatological Science. (2007) The vascular characteristics of melasma. Retrieved from:
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  12. Harvard Women’s Health Watch (2018) Retrieved from:
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