In my battle with melasma, I learned that our skin reflects our overall health – revealing much more about our wellness than what’s visible on the surface.
Sved Oliver / 123RF Photo
Five years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, I started to notice dark blotches on my cheeks, jawline and forehead. After years of dealing with adult acne, which appeared when I turned 30 and eventually led me to try power drug Accutane, I was facing something new and equally heartbreaking: melasma.
At the time, it was my worst nightmare. What caused it? Why me? And how would I restore my beautiful skin after finally kicking the acne? I started to avoid leaving the house, only going out with layers of heavy makeup in an effort to conceal the growing dark areas that covered most of my face. I felt alone in my tortured state — without answers.
The effort to find a cure began. I saw doctor after doctor and spent a small fortune on chemical peels, microdermabrasion, LED facials, OTC (over the counter) remedies, prescription drugs and more.
Meanwhile, my health waned. I was depressed, had adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalance, digestion disorders, liver congestion, heavy metal toxicity and more. I didn’t realize that my overall health issues were related to my persistent skin problems. The doctors I saw would only focus on one particular issue, not the big picture, prescribing drugs to fix one thing and then another.
When I began my initial treatments for the dark skin blotches, my condition was referred to as hyperpigmentation — not melasma. I eventually learned they are two very separate conditions. The spots on my forehead, although as prominent as those on my cheeks and jawline, would vanish in months with mild treatment. The dark spots on my cheeks remained until I learned about the source of my condition.
What is melasma?
Melasma is often called “pregnancy mask” because it’s associated with hormonal imbalances (specifically estrogen dominance) during pregnancy, contraception use and HRT (hormone replacement therapy) although some dermatologists also include sun exposure. Since I couldn’t look to any of these as the reasons for my problem, I continued to be mystified as to how I ended up with this condition.
Finally turning to holistic medicine, I discovered that the effects of various prescriptions (Accutane, anti-malaria pills, anti-depressants) had triggered my problem. I began to read voraciously about skincare and alternative health. It would be through books, websites and relentless inquiries that I would educate myself and finally meet a talented esthetician and later a naturopath who would both change not only my skin but my life.
I’m convinced now that it was anti-malaria pills (that I took before a trip to the Dominican Republic) and particularly the Accutane that was responsible for the change in my skin pigment — years after I’d discontinued using it. Even though there is no “scientific proof” that it causes melasma, dermatologists agree that Accutane increases photosensitivity. For years I’d been taking prescription after prescription, and the more drugs I took, the more my health deteriorated. That finally began to change when I sought natural treatments with a holistic approach.
“Less is more” skin care approach
One of the key players in my return to healthy skin is Annalee Stone. Stone operates Stone Skin Care in Los Angeles. Her skincare education exceeds the level required for an esthetician license and includes an associate of science degree and bachelor’s degree equivalent in molecular/cellular biology. She has had 50 clients who’ve suffered from melasma and hyperpigmentation and says that 85 percent who continued treatment saw significant improvement and lightening in their skin. She attributes her success to organic products and a “less is more” approach.
Stone says she discovered that scientific methods do not always hold up for skincare. “I assumed formulas created in the lab would be more effective but I found the exact opposite to be true,” she said. “The chemical formulas are degenerative and too harsh on delicate facial skin. Organic products are more regenerative.”
Stone understood my concerns immediately. Her treatment for melasma is a simple facial that includes a peel and manual microdermabrasion (using a handheld tool that gives her more control without suction or abrasion). She said it doesn’t make sense to use a microdermabrasion machine because it can weaken collagen and elastin in the skin as well as break capillaries.
Her suggestions for my home routine started with a few changes that included less but more effective products and gentle care. Most recently, I added an experimental 100 percent plant-based serum (Organic Skin Face Serum by Self Health Revolution) that would be the next big step to eliminating nearly all of my melasma plus other benefits such as clarity, smoothness and anti-aging.
Stone prides herself on constantly keeping up with skincare education and giving her clients only the best treatment and honest advice. Her view on medical approach to skincare by typical dermatologists is equally zealous: “Doctors are not in the business of curing any skin issues,” she said. “It’s more profitable to give patients prescription medicine long term.”
I could totally relate to that!
Treating the underlying cause
I still had my internal health problems to conquer. Simultaneously suffering from fatigue, poor digestion and a variety of other symptoms led me to seek out holistic and alternative medicine.
Enter Jennifer Abercrombie, board certified Naturopathic Doctor at Naturopathic Wellness Center. She treats health concerns internally with a holistic approach. I came to her with my various physical symptoms and the suspicion that my melasma was somehow connected.
Dr. Jenny, as she likes her patients to call her, explained that our goal would be to discover and treat the underlying factors. She addressed my hormonal imbalance by treating chronic stress, adrenal dysfunction, thyroid disorder, congested liver and gut inflammation — all symptoms related to the melasma.
Her treatment started with an anti-inflammatory diet with the goal of improving the gut function and hormone metabolism. Next, she focused on supporting liver function by adding foods to my diet containing turmeric, ginger and cilantro. Then she wanted me to reduce stress with herbs such as avena, crataegus, and valerian root. Finally, we needed to support my adrenals with proper amounts of sleep and balanced nutrition. Supplements such as vitamin C, the B vitamins, rhodiola, ashwaganda, and holy basil were introduced.
“Results can take months depending on the patient,” Dr. Jenny said. “Holistic methods take time and are not an overnight miracle. But in the end, they do work, without the side effects typically associated with perscription medication, if you adhere to the treatment.”
Traditional methods to treat melasma
In contrast, traditional medical professionals address melasma from a very different approach. I asked Dr. Ella Fedonenko, a board-certified internist with vast experience in dermatology, about her skincare practices regarding melasma. She said her approach is based on approved medical techniques with proven results. When asked about a natural approach, she stated “There’s no scientific evidence that any of the holistic skincare treatments work for melasma.”
Instead, Dr. Fedonenko prescribes topicals like hydroquinone, steroid creams, isotretinoin and triple-combination creams to lighten dark spots. And for more sensitive skin, she uses a non-hydroquionone product, Vivite Vibrance — a prescription grade therapy that evens out overall skin tone.
For faster results, she says that IPL photofacial (intense pulsed light) gets an 80-90 percent success rate among her patients. The treatment requires an average of 3-4 sessions in 4 week intervals to achieve visible results. Typically a single session costs $300. Whether you treat by laser or prescription topical creams, she always recommends strong sunscreens to protect the face from sun damage.
Ultimately, the holistic protocol paired with my skincare routine was the solution for me, because it treated my symptoms from the inside while correcting my melasma. Once my hormones started to balance out my numerous health issues stabilized and I noticed that my skin was visibly returning to its normal pigmentation. Now in my final stages of restoring my skin (and overall health), I can say that the journey made me a proponent of natural health care.
Where it all started
I believe my melasma developed from the use of prescription medication. Desperate to eliminate my chronic acne and turning to Accutane, I inadvertently started a domino effect that would lead to problems with my hormones and liver. The problems only escalated with each drug. Eventually the source of my poor health was buried under years of misdiagnosed and mistreated conditions until I took my health into my own hands.
Changing the way we think, live and treat our bodies is a necessity to overcoming the challenges of melasma and the underlying health issues that cause it. If you’re a woman plagued by melasma, know that you are not alone and there is hope.
Copyright © Nadia Dulyn/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.