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Skin Darkening and Discoloration During Pregnancy

Medically Reviewed by Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN
Updated
Learn about the causes of skin darkening during pregnancy, and how you can prevent it.

Are you pregnant and noticing dark spots on your face, arms, or legs?

Pregnancy comes with a lot of changes. But one of the most shocking can be your skin and freckles getting darker.

In this article, we’re going to discuss melasma (also known as “pregnancy mask”), one of the little-discussed symptoms of pregnancy.

We’ll talk about if it’s normal, why it happens, and what we can do if it happens to us.


Is Skin Darkening During Pregnancy Normal?

Although it may not be one of the most talked-about symptoms of pregnancy, skin darkening, known as melasma or chloasma, is entirely normal. It is sometimes referred to as the “mask of pregnancy” because it often shows up on the face, especially the forehead, nose, and cheekbones (1).

But while the face is the most common area for discoloration to occur, it can happen anywhere on the body. Skin darkening is also common in areas often exposed to the sun, like your arms and legs, as well as your underarms where friction can easily occur (2).

Another common pregnancy symptom, the linea nigra, is thought to occur because of the same process.

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Causes of Melasma

Just as estrogen causes hair growth during pregnancy, and progesterone can cause bloating, hormones are also the likely cause of skin darkening. The only issue is no one is completely sure which hormone is the culprit.

Melanocytes are cells in the skin that deposit pigment and melanocyte-stimulating hormones are increased during the second and third trimesters. Some maintain it is caused by increased progesterone instead, and argue it is fairly common in menopausal women who take progesterone supplements (3).

Others think it is the increased estrogen levels that increase the production of melanin (4).

Who Gets It

The one thing experts agree on is skin darkening in pregnancy is more common in women who already have increased skin pigmentation, including women of African, Asian, and Latin American descent (5).

Can I Prevent Skin Darkening During Pregnancy?

Unfortunately, the increased hormones that likely cause melasma are needed to help your baby develop and grow. Estrogen, for example, helps your baby to develop normally, while progesterone helps your uterus to thicken and be a healthy environment for your baby to grow.

Because these hormones are so important to your baby, there is nothing we can do to fully prevent skin darkening from happening.

But while we can’t prevent melasma from happening, there are things you can do to help stop it from getting worse.

1. Take Your Vitamins

Folic acid is an important prenatal vitamin for pregnant women because it helps prevent neural tube defects. It can also help reduce the baby’s risk of cleft lip and palate, certain heart defects, and can help reduce your risk of preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy).

While skin darkening is not nearly as important as your baby’s brain health, folic acid also has another little-known bonus use — it can help prevent hyperpigmentation.

2. Cover Up

While exposure to the sun can help you obtain a wanted summer glow, it also has a nasty side effect of making already dark areas of your skin darker. What that means is if you already have patches of skin discolored by melasma, exposing them to the sun can make them worse.

To prevent this from happening, keeping your skin covered is key. Long sleeves, pants, and wide-brimmed hats can help keep the sun’s rays off of your skin and prevent the melasma patches from getting darker.

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3. SPF Is Your Friend

If you’re pregnant during the summer, long sleeves and pants might not be a viable option when it comes to covering your skin up and preventing melasma from getting worse.

Dermatologists recommend wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily as a part of your skincare routine to prevent skin cancer. It can also prevent chloasma from getting worse.

When picking out a sunscreen, avoid those with the ingredient oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has been shown to cause low birth weight and problems with the baby’s hormone levels, which could lead to developmental problems.

An SPF sunscreen of 30 or more can block out 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays (6). Apply it to your face every morning along with your other skincare products, as well as to any area of your body that will be exposed to the sun, taking care to reapply every 2 hours while exposed.

Remember

Are you going to be working up a sweat or out in the sun throughout the day? Bring your sunscreen with you to reapply it every two hours.

4. Say No To Waxing

While hair growth is another common symptom of pregnancy, it doesn’t always occur in the areas we want it to. To not look like an extra in Planet of the Apes, many women seek out ways to get rid of it.

But if your extra hair growth has you heading to the waxing salon, you might want to reconsider.

While waxing is safe for both mom and baby during pregnancy, it can also cause skin inflammation. This can, in turn, make the hyperpigmentation worse.

5. Choose Your Skin Care Wisely

While your favorite lotion might have a scent that reminds you of rainbows and butterflies, if you’re suffering from melasma during pregnancy, chemical-free and fragrance-free soaps and skincare products are the way to go. The fewer chemicals in your products, the less likely they are to react negatively to the sun on your skin. And since your skin is more sensitive during pregnancy, this will also help to prevent other problems such as breakouts.

You may be tempted to try products with hydroquinone or retinol to lighten up those dark spots, but those are not safe during pregnancy. Using these products is safe only after pregnancy and after you are done breastfeeding (7).

9 Remedies That May Help

The best thing to do if you are suffering from melasma is to try to prevent it. But if you’re looking for a way to help get rid of hyperpigmentation that has already popped up on your skin, there are some remedies that may help.

Many of these remedies can be harsh on sensitive skin due to the different acids they contain.

Before applying them to large areas, make sure to test them on a small section of skin first to ensure you won’t have a bad reaction.

  1. Exfoliate: Exfoliating once a week can remove dead skin cells, which are often darker than the healthy skin cells underneath. It also may help increase the penetration of the other remedies you may try.
  2. Potato: Cut a potato in half and rub the juice into melasma spots to help lighten the skin. Do this daily for the best results.
  3. Aloe: Pure aloe vera gel, whether bottled or straight from the plant, can help to lighten dark spots. Apply the gel directly to the areas of hyperpigmentation, let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes, and then gently wipe it off with warm water. For best results, repeat this process daily.
  4. Yogurt: Yogurt contains lactic acid, which has bleaching properties that can help even out melasma spots. Apply plain Greek yogurt to your face like a mask, let it sit for 10 minutes, then rinse off gently with warm water.
  5. Onion: Onions contain a lot of sulfur compounds called sulfoxides, which can help to lighten dark spots left by hyperpigmentation. To use this method, quarter an onion and place it in a blender. Once it’s blended, squeeze out the juice and then rub the juice directly onto clean skin. Allow the juice to dry for 15 minutes and rinse off with warm water. Use daily for best results.
  6. Apple cider vinegar: Apple cider vinegar contains acetic acid and can help to lighten your skin. Dilute the ACV with equal parts water and apply it directly to problem areas.
  7. Milk, honey, and dried orange peel: Orange peels contain calcium, Vitamin C, and can help to whiten dark spots on your skin. Process the orange peels in a blender, then mix with milk and honey to form a paste. Use this as a mask to both help lighten dark spots, while also nourishing and pampering your skin.
  8. Tomato and oatmeal: Tomato juice can help lighten areas of hyperpigmentation because it contains Vitamin A, and oatmeal can help to exfoliate and take away dead skin cells that are darker than the healthy skin underneath. Mix these two to form a paste and apply it like a mask. Leave it on for 20 minutes and then rub it into your face to scrub. Rinse off with warm water. You can also add milk or yogurt to this mask to give it more nourishing properties if you’d like.
  9. Lemon: The citric acid in lemon juice has bleaching properties that can help make dark spots disappear. Cut a lemon in half and rub the juice directly onto the affected area, then leave it on for 20 minutes for the best results.

Will It Go Away After Pregnancy?

Are you losing sleep at night wondering if these dark spots will remain on your skin forever? Breathe, mama, the good news is most women will see dark spots fade as their hormone levels go down after their baby is born.

Beware though, because one in ten moms will find this condition worsens when taking hormonal contraceptives after giving birth (8). So, if you suffered melasma during pregnancy, talk to your doctor about what birth control would help you to keep this from occurring.


When It’s All Said And Done

Hyperpigmentation is the last thing you want to deal with when pregnancy has already put things like nausea and heartburn on your plate. We get it!

While there is nothing we can do to stop skin darkening completely, with the tips and tricks listed in this article you can help keep it to a minimum. And you can also help to lighten hyperpigmentation if it’s already occurred.

Headshot of Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN

Medically Reviewed by

Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN

Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN is an oncology nurse navigator and freelance medical writer. Mary has 4 years of experience as an officer in the Navy Nurse Corps. including emergency/trauma, post-anesthesia, and deployment medicine.

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