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‘Doctor, can you hit my pigments with a stronger laser?’ –  How NOT to treat melasma. 

‘Pico’ or Pico Laser has in the last 2 years became one of the most commonly heard buzzwords in the treatment of pigmentation, so much that it has become very common for patients turning up at aesthetic clinics requesting for ‘picolaser’ for their ‘pigment problems’.

NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL

However, NOT all pigment problems are the same.

In one of my recent clinic sessions, a patient came in for a consultation to address her facial pigmentation. She had gone for a ‘pico’ session in another clinic a few months ago and was told that her pigments will be cleared in one session.

To her dismay, however, the pigment had become darker and she looked worse after the treatment. She waited a few months hoping that it will lighten out, but it did not.

She asked if she can have stronger pico laser to treat her pigments. I had however started her on a pigment lightening cream instead of hitting her harder with the laser.

Why you may ask. Indeed, picosecond lasers of certain wavelengths are useful in treating pigmentary disorders, however, pigments on the face or anywhere on the body can be caused by a myriad of conditions, and a one-size-fits-all approach is certainly not the way to go.

MELASMA

MELASMA

In her situation, the diagnosis of melasma was made. Melasma is a disorder of hyperpigmentation of which aetiology is thought to be an interplay between UV exposure, genetic and hormonal factors.

It typically appears as symmetrical, blotchy brown patches over the cheeks, although the forehead, temples, nasal bridge, upper lips, and jawline are also known to be affected. The condition affects women more than men and commonly appears in the mid-30s.

It can also develop during or after a pregnancy. Other factors increasing the chance of melasma include a history of excessive sun exposure, family history, increased female hormones either by being on hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptive pills, thyroid disease and low testosterone amongst others.

Also Read: What Harm Can Ultraviolet Radiation Do

Although not a life-threatening condition, it can be very disfiguring for people affected by the condition and has a deleterious impact on the quality of life.

Melasma has NO CURE, but it can be treated.

IS PIGMENT LASER NOT A TREATMENT FOR PIGMENTATION?

Pigment lasers have since the days of Q-switched lasers become one of the most effective tools in the treatment of pigmentary disorders such as sunspots, freckles and have become one of the most invaluable tools in the clinic of an aesthetic physician or dermatologist.

Pigment lasers use the physics theory of chromophores attracting energy from light. Pigments in the skin act as a chromophore and absorb the energy from certain wavelengths of lasers. These pigments are then selectively fragmented due to photoacoustic and photothermal effects from the lasers and are subsequently ingested and cleared by our immune systems.

Now, this works for most pigments, and will even work for other exogenous pigments such as tattoos. However, why is melasma so difficult to treat? It either responds only to return with a vengeance almost immediately after or just does not respond at all?

MELASMA IS A DISEASE OF OVERPRODUCTION OF MELANIN PIGMENTS BY SENSITIZED MELANOCYTES

To understand why we have to first understand how melasma happens. I mentioned earlier that melasma is an interplay between UV exposure, genetic and hormonal factors.

However, melasma is a condition is not the same as skin hyperpigmentation that is induced by UV or inflammation. Through molecular pathway studies, it is now believed that people affected by melasma have increased expression and upregulation of certain receptors involved in the stimulation of melanogenesis and melanosome transfer compared to normal individuals resulting in persistent hyperpigmentation in melasmic lesions.

This essentially means that pigment-producing cells in people with melasma are sensitized and hyper-stimulated, thus when triggered by factors which can stimulate melanin production, will result in even more pigments being produced and deposited into the skin.

LASER OR NO LASER?

For the above reasons, treatment of facial pigments must start with a sound medical approach. The correct diagnosis must be made before embarking on any treatment.

Pigmentary conditions such as freckles, sun spots, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can be easily treated with lasers.

Melasma, on the other hand, needs to be treated with a more holistic approach. As the condition is due to upregulation and sensitization of pigment-producing cells, treatment starts with treating the root cause of it, by reducing all risk factors for pigment production as much as possible.

This will include treating hormonal factors such as reviewing a patient’s medications for any medications that can alter hormonal levels such as oral contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapy; sun protection with broad-spectrum sunscreens.

Treatment should also include topical creams for pigments. The pigment cream hydroquinone is still the standard treatment of melasma although, in the recent years, concerns have grown regarding long term use of the medication and alternatives which work to a lesser degree such as creams containing arbutin, azeleic and ascorbic acids, niacinamide kojic acid have also been used.

Now, that does not mean that laser has no role in the treatment of melasma. Judicious use of lasers and acid peels can act as good adjuncts in the treatment of melasma. When used correctly, they can speed up the lightening of pigments; and in recalcitrant melasma which responds poorly to topical creams, lasers and peels still have a strong role to play.

MELASMA CAN BE TREATED SUCCESSFULLY

Melasma is a complex and challenging condition to treat and requires both times, patience and persistence. A sound and holistic medical approach by the doctor, and diligence on the part of the patients applying and using the prescribed treatments while maintaining lifestyle factors such as staying away from the sun, avoiding irritative cosmetics are crucial to achieving visible improvement and maintaining good complexion in the treatment of melasma. It may not be curable, but it certainly can be treated well.

If you are indeed suffering from melasma, speak to your doctor so that it can be addressed early.