What’s the Difference Between Melasma and Sun Spots?

What's the Difference Between Melasma and Sun Spots featured photo

Skin discoloration, hyperpigmentation, freckles—these terms get used interchangeably as telling them apart at a glance is not always easy. Such vagueness but if you’ve been noticing some brown patches on your skin lately, it’s most likely due to either melasma or sun spots.

But how do you tell which is which?

The main difference between melasma and sun spots is their triggers. Sun exposure, hormones, and genetics are all factors that can cause melasma. Sunspots, on the other hand, are exactly what they are.

While they may look and act alike, different types of hyperpigmentation require different solutions. Let’s break down their differences and explore the various ways to clear up those pesky splotches.

What Is the Difference Between Melasma And Sun Spots?

Two of the most common skin discolorations that can develop anywhere on your body are melasma and sun spot. Without proper assessment, these hyperpigmentation conditions can be hard to tell apart. For one, melasma and sun spots almost look identical.


Also referred to as “pregnancy mask,” melasma is a skin hyperpigmentation characterized as irregular medium to dark patches on the skin. It’s symmetrical in appearance, which means that it looks the same especially if you have it on both sides of your face.

Melasma is referred to as a mask of pregnancy because it mainly affects facial skin. It often occurs on the cheeks, chin, nose, upper lip, and cranial areas like the forehead. However, it can also appear on different parts of the body like shoulders, neck, and arms.

While it is easy to blame the sun for causing such skin discoloration, hormone production has a lot to do with it too, which is why pregnant women are more prone to it.

In fact, due to hormonal factors, a lot of women aged 20 to 40—pregnant or not—can have it. Melasma is also more common in women than in men, especially those with darker skin tones.

Other triggers of melasma include taking birth control pills, tanning beds, stress, thyroid issues, and genetics. It’s not painful or itchy, but it can affect one’s visual appearance

Sun Spots

Sun spots or sun damage is caused by the sun. When your skin is exposed to UV rays, it produces melanin (natural pigment) within the skin cells melanocytes as a natural response to protect your skin. However, when overstimulated from much sun exposure, it can lead to hyperpigmentation or sun spots.

Just like melasma, it comes in dark spots on the face but can vary from freckles to dark patches. That said, sunspots are usually not instantly visible to the naked eye. They can develop very slowly, with most cases taking years to show.

There is a common misconception that sunspots are an age-related skin condition, thus commonly termed as “age spots.” But that is not all the way true. Those spots have existed in your skin, working their way to the surface for many years having been exposed to the sun almost every day.

While melasma mostly manifests in the face, sun spots can occur in any part of your body that gets a lot of sun exposure. They are more common in people with lighter skin tones due to the lack of melanin that acts as a natural sunscreen. However, it can happen to anyone with prolonged sun exposure.

Sun spots are not dangerous, but if left untreated, it could go from harmless freckles to skin cancer.

How To Know if It’s Melasma or Sun Damage

Melasma and sun damage is hard to differentiate unless you seek the help of a dermatologist. They can help you determine whether you have melasma or sun damage since they are well-equipped with camera systems and other devices to assess your condition.

Going to a clinic will also help you choose the best treatment for your skin condition. Derma clinics use different devices and treatments and are continuously adapting to new techniques to address such skin problems.

How Do You Treat Sun Spots and Melasma?

Melasma and sun spots may share similar treatments. However, since melasma affects the deeper layers of the skin, it can be harder to treat than sun spots. It is also caused by hormones and genetic predisposition, so a positive response to treatment requires different techniques.

Most of the treatments for both melasma and sun spots can be done at home. However, some extreme cases may require dermatologist intervention.

Treatment for Melasma

The treatment for melasma is more complex than sun spots. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation. What works for one patient might not work for another. Some cases may clear up quickly, while others could take longer. Overall, it is notoriously hard to treat. In many cases, it might not respond well to treatments.

Topical products such as hydroquinone creams and retinol are your first line of treatment for melasma. They are available over the counter or can be prescribed by a dermatologist. These products can exfoliate and lighten the splotches, revealing a more even skin tone. However, they are not recommended for pregnant women.

Vitamin C serum is another topical solution to brighten up the pigments. It also reverses dullness on the skin and reveals a luminous glow. A good Vitamin C serum is potent and rich in antioxidants without aggravating sensitive skin.

If you find topical solutions to be ineffective, chemical peels are another option. Chemical peels contain active ingredients including Kojic acid to lighten the pigments. Make sure to have it done by a professional/dermatologist to prevent scarring and further pigmentation.

Many aesthetic clinics also offer fractional laser or non-light-based treatments to exfoliate and slough off skin hyperpigmentation. These treatments are a good way to target the pigments without activating the melanocytes. Treatment terms vary from person to person and it may require ongoing maintenance.

Treatment for Sun Spot

Treating sun spots is a lot easier than melasma since it targets the outermost skin layer. Medical-grade retinol, hydroquinone, and Vitamin C are great topical solutions to have. Chemical exfoliants such as lactic acid and glycolic acid can also help clear up discoloration.

For more severe cases, you may want to visit a dermatologist’s clinic. They may recommend fractional laser treatment, chemical peel, microdermabrasion, or fractional laser treatment depending on the condition of your skin. Each procedure varies. It may also require several sessions for continuous, visible results.

Don’t Forget Your Sun Protection!

One of the main causes of melasma and sun damage is sun exposure. The best way to reduce the risk of developing these skin hyperpigmentation conditions is to avoid the sun. But, of course, for many people, especially in the tropics, this is not possible.

If you couldn’t help but bask in the sun all summer, make it a habit to apply sunscreen. Colder months are not an exception. The sun will still emit UV rays, so wear your sunscreen. You can also wear sleeves, pants, and hats for extra layers of protection.

For dark skin folks, even with melanated skin, applying sunscreen is still a must. If you have fair skin, the possibility of sunburn is high and you risk developing skin cancer.

Regardless of age, gender, and race, you should always wear a broad-spectrum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Doing so also helps prevent premature aging, slowing down the development of fine lines and wrinkles. SPF is overall a good addition to any skincare.

What Do Melasma Spots Look Like?

Melasma is characterized by freckle-like patches and or blotchy brownish spots on the skin. They appear more prominent and develop more on women with medium to dark skin tones.

What Are 3 Different Types of Melasma?

Melasma has three different types: epidermal, dermal, and mixed.

Epidermal melasma is well-defined dark brown spots on the skin’s surface. It is visible under dark light and can respond well to treatment in certain cases.

Dermal melasma has less noticeable bluish-gray or light brown spots with blurry borders and looks the same under black light. However, it does not respond effectively to treatment.

Mixed melasma is a mix of dermal and epidermal. The hyperpigmentation on the skin can range from light and dark brown to blue-gray. Under black light are the mixed patterns and may respond to some treatments.

Conclusion: Melasma vs. Sun Spots

Melasma and sun spots are two of the most common skin discolorations that affect a lot of people worldwide. They can look and act the same, but what sets one apart from the other is their triggers and how well they respond to treatment.

Melasma can be a more complicated situation, though. That said, wearing SPF and proper clothing can make a big difference.

If you are uncertain whether you have melasma or sun spots, consult with a dermatologist for proper assessment. In the meantime, we hope you’ve found this helpful, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have more questions. Thanks for reading!

Michelle Jackson
Michelle Jackson