The pregnancy mask. No, it is not a facial treatment that will make your skin glow. Rather it's a not-so-pretty skin condition that many pregnant women develop over the course of nine months.
Also known as melasma, the pregnancy mask involves the darkening of the skin on the face in a mask-like pattern, according to Dr. Heather Rupe of The Women's Group of Franklin. Rupe told me that it usually happens during the second trimester of pregnancy and can take up to a year postpartum to resolve itself.
As I progressed into my second trimester of pregnancy, they got darker and new patches appeared.
Some women also get melasma while on birth control pills — including me. Before I got pregnant, I had two small dark spots on my right cheekbone. I could cover them up easily with a bit of concealer and thought of them like large freckles. But as I progressed into my second trimester of pregnancy, they got darker and new patches appeared. I started to resemble Lisa Frank animals with leopard spots on their cheekbones, except mine were not rainbow colored.
Without any makeup, you can see my growing collection of dark spots clearly.
What Causes Melasma?
I reached out to Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of her own salon and skincare line, to find out more about what causes melasma and whether there was anything I could do about it. "Most women get the pregnancy mask toward the end, and it lasts for a while after the baby is born," she told me. "It's called the pregnancy mask because the melasma appears around the eye area, forming a mask shape around the orbital bones." That sounded familiar to me.
According to Vargas, it made sense that my existing spots grew darker. "Hormones are raging during pregnancy, and for this reason it tends to darken existing spots," she said. In fact, hormones are one of two culprits behind the skin condition. Here's how Vargas broke down the causes of melasma:
- Hormonal fluctuations: All those pregnancy hormones that make sure your baby is developing properly (while sometimes driving you crazy) can trigger melasma. Vargas noted that for some nonpregnant women, it can flare up around their periods, too. "It will appear darker or lighter depending upon their time of the month," she explained. Hormones also explain why some women get these spots while taking the pill.
- Cell mutation: Surprise! The sun causes "sun spots," the unofficial name for melasma. And the threat of cell mutation goes beyond direct exposure to the sun. "Whenever the skin is stressed or even too hot, it causes internal inflammation," Vargas explained, and the skin's inflammatory response is discoloration. "I have melasma myself, and I can get dark spots on my face even if I'm under an umbrella and covered in sunscreen. The cell mutation is there, and my skin reacts to heat."
What Can You Do About It?
First off, don't stress too much about it. Vargas reminds her expecting clients that pregnancy gives you a chance to forget about your body for a bit and focus on the baby. "You are growing the foundation for all of your baby's organs. Be healthy. Anything can be fixed after," she said.
The melasma will be so much worse without being careful about sunscreen.
In addition to covering spots up with makeup, there is one thing you can do to minimize the discoloration: avoid the sun. "The melasma will be so much worse without being careful about sunscreen," Vargas said. "I would also recommend wearing a hat throughout the pregnancy."
Here's some more good news: melasma typically dissipates after you finish breastfeeding. "On some women, it goes away sooner, but usually it takes a few months after you stop breastfeeding for your body to feel completely normal again." If the spots don't lighten on their own after you stop breastfeeding, you can also talk to your dermatologist about professional treatment options, like microdermabrasion and retinol creams.
In the meantime, if you're pregnant and looking for a skin pick-me-up, Vargas had this advice: "exfoliation and brightening masks with kojic acid, like my exfoliating mask, are awesome for making the skin look better." Just know they won't prevent melasma from happening. But that's OK — there's always concealer.