If your pregnancy glow is accompanied by weird patches of light skin discoloration, you're in good company. Nearly all pregnant women experience these changes in skin color -- technically known as hyperpigmentation -- at some point during their pregnancies, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can blame those blotches on the same thing that causes morning sickness, fatigue, and your craving for pickles and ice cream: pregnancy hormones.
“The body experiences profound adjustments during pregnancy, which make pregnant women susceptible to changes of the skin, hair and nails," says dermatologist George Kroumpouzos, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Brown University who coauthored an examination of pregnancy's affects on skin in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2001.
Hyperpigmentation occurs when your body kicks up its production of melanin, causing patches of skin discoloration. Sometimes these darker spots occur in places where your skin is already a little darker, like your breasts and nipples, or your genitals. Moles, freckles and even scars may look a little darker.
As many as 70 percent of pregnant women may notice patches of discoloration on their faces, especially on the cheeks, forehead, chin and upper lip, says Dr. Kroumpouzos. This distinctive discoloration is called melasma, or "the mask of pregnancy." According to Dr. Kroumpouzos, melasma can show up in three patterns: in a kind of circle that covers the center of your face; along your cheeks and nose; or on the sides of your cheeks and along your jawline. Sometimes, melasma can also occur on your forearms. Doctors aren't sure why, but women with darker skin are more likely to develop melasma than fairer-skinned girls, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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In most cases, pregnancy skin discoloration is no big deal. You may not love the way it looks, but it's not physically uncomfortable and it doesn't pose a threat to you or your developing baby. Occasionally, however, skin discoloration can signal a potentially serious problem. If your skin discoloration is accompanied by pain, itching or other discomfort, call your doctor. You could have intrahepatic cholestasis, pemphigoid gestationis or impetigo herpetiformis, skin conditions that can affect your pregnancy and your health if they go untreated.
You probably can’t prevent pregnancy skin discoloration, but you can help minimize its effects by being extra-vigilant about applying broad-spectrum sunscreen. Sun exposure exacerbates melasma, and hyperpigmentation is most likely to occur on parts of the skin that are exposed to sunlight. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, invest in a stylish broad-brimmed hat to give you an extra layer of skin protection.
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The simplest solution to minimizing your skin discoloration is to use bronzer to even out your skin tone. A light hand and lots of blending can make discoloration almost invisible.
If your skin discoloration is really driving you crazy, though, schedule an appointment with your dermatologist. Most pregnancy skin discoloration will fade within a few months of giving birth if you're willing to wait it out, but there are treatments that may be safe during pregnancy, too. "There are many treatment options available that will relieve discomfort and anxiety, and lead to a more relaxed pregnancy," says Dr. Kroumpouzos. In some cases, you can minimize discoloration by using topical corticosteroids, bleaching agents, chemical peels or tretinoin, says Dr. Kroumpouzos, but you should check with your pregnancy health care provider before trying any prenatal skin treatments.