Before she hits the pool or beach, Katie Sturino, founder of the plus size fashion blog The12ishStyle, defiantly smears a line of brightly colored zinc right above her top lip. She has eight different colors, and chooses among them according to what goes best with her bathing suit that day. It might sound strange—don’t we typically want our sunscreen to not be visible?—but Sturino proudly sports her zinc ‘stache for a legit reason: She has melasma.
Melasma is a skin condition that causes hyperpigmentation, or brown patches, on the face. It’s pretty common—an estimated 20 percent of women have some form of melasma, dermatologist Dennis Gross, M.D., founder of 900 Fifth Dermatology, tells SELF. But it’s not often talked about. “Everyone just walks around with dark splotches on their face, and no one talks about it,” Sturino observes.
About 10 years ago, Sturino switched her birth control method, and soon after, she started noticing something weird whenever she spent time in the sun. “I almost looked like I had touched a newspaper and touched my upper lip with ink,” she describes. “I was dating at the time and was so self-conscious because I was afraid [men] would think it was a mustache.” After visiting her dermatologist, she learned that she had melasma and that it was caused by hormones and exacerbated by sun exposure.
“Melasma is caused by hormones and made worse by sun because the cells that produce melanin (melanocytes) have estrogen receptors,” Gross explains. “Typically, higher estrogen levels in women increase the production of melanin when skin is exposed to the sun.” He adds that sometimes melasma can appear regardless of sun exposure. It commonly occurs during pregnancy, when estrogen levels skyrocket.
The best way to reduce flareups? Wearing SPF whenever your skin is exposed to the sun. Dermatologists, including Gross, suggest using a physical sunscreen like zinc oxide for the best coverage. “If the skin is protected by a broad-spectrum SPF, less melanin pigment will be produced,” he says.
Sturino’s doctor suggested the same thing—hence her public display of zinc devotion. “If I don’t put any SPF on and take a 20-minute walk in the sun, [the melasma] can come out,” she says. And while she realizes she may be the only woman out there rocking a colorful mustache, she says she’d rather look silly at the pool than feel self-conscious every other day. She also enjoys sparking conversation about an oft-overlooked skin issue.
“Of course it looks crazy, so I get a lot of reactions. But I feel like it’s an important thing for me to talk about,” she says. She says that when she posts a photo on Instagram of her poolside look and why she’s rocking it, she gets a lot of messages from women who have the same problem and are inspired by her bold preventive efforts. “Even if I’m reaching 10 people who are going to change their behavior about it, I feel like that’s something I wish I would have had when I first was getting these spots.”
For some people, melasma can fade away by itself, especially with diligent sun protection. But for those who have more severe discoloration that won’t seem to budge, Gross recommends an over-the-counter bleaching or lightening product. “In my experience, creams that contain 4 percent hydroquinone combined with kojic acid work the best.” Ascorbic acid and vitamin C are also effective for lightening and brightening the skin and are often gentler.
Looking to follow in Sturino’s neon footsteps? She recommends Zinka ($7, zinka.com), and also suggests using lighter colors—the dark ones soak up more sun and make you sweatier. She says she used to wear white zinc, but a lot of people would ask her if she was bleaching her mustache. “So I switched to color—it’s more fun. I look stupid anyway, so I might as well go for the gold.”