Letter 009: Melasma and Sweet Coffee
Hello! Happy Creamline day!
Christine: Lately, I’ve seen many talented writers reflecting on the anniversary of the pandemic. It’s a heavy subject and I admire them for taking the time with it.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of it.
Can anyone relate? I may be in the minority here, which is fine. In the past, I’ve certainly found solace and insight in reflecting on grief and growth. But, I still feel like I’m grieving and growing, and like ripping off my Band-Aid will reveal a wound, rather than a scar. Maybe I’ll be ready to reflect once we’re past this.
Actually, once we’re past this, I’d love to get together for a big picnic in Prospect Park (the superior NYC park, fight me) and talk about the weird things we learned about ourselves during lockdown and the ways that we surprised ourselves. I got into crypto, took naps, and bought a lot of homewares, including and especially from East Fork (raise your hand if you have a reminder set for the Taro drop. Salonee, I know you’re with me.)
Anyway, I guess what I want to say is that I’m sending hugs to everyone feeling a bit raw! Which is probably most of us, right? Depending on the day? There’s a lot of joy in imagining the post-pandemic world that seems to be slowly unfolding. As we wait for it to come, though, I hope we all give ourselves lots of room to be tender and weird and awkward in the meantime.
Taylore: Christine! I will join you in Prospect Park at your soonest convenience and I, too, refuse to indulge in the panny-anny content. In fact, I’m taking a metaphorical steamer to the hippocampus when it comes to my memories of Spring/Summer 2020 and smoothing that shit out like linen pants. Rather than dwell, I’m thinking ahead to the unhinged, bacchanalian housewarming party of my daydreams later this year should mass-vaccinations allow (yes, I’m moving again because I’m a masochist and no, I’m not actually planning a real rager mid-pandemic.) But should the occasion safely arise, there’s a playlist, there’s a menu, and there’s a slutty little outfit at the ready. You’re all invited, and so are your pets. Let’s break my new furniture. I’m begging for a noise complaint.
Anyway, thanks for all your beauty questions in response to our letter last week— they’re SUCH good ones. I’m going to cover some of the topics on our Instagram stories over the next couple weeks, like hair loss, period-related misery, bloating, and lymphatic drainage massage. But for this week, I wanted to cover a major skincare concern I get asked about constantly: melasma, or patches of dark pigmentation in the skin. It’s a bitch! It takes some work to treat, and people of color need to take a little extra care. Lucky for me, I’m on texting basis with my favorite celebrity esthetician and namesake brand founder, Renée Rouleau.
TG: For our unfamiliar readers, what exactly is melasma, and what are the factors that cause it?
RR: Melasma is a pigmentation disorder characterized by brown or grey-brown patches on the skin. You can develop melasma anywhere, but it most commonly appears on the forehead, around the mouth (especially upper lip), or along the outer perimeters of the face and cheeks. Essentially, melasma is an overproduction of melanin. Melanocytes are cells that live in the dermis (the deepest layer of the skin) and produce melanin (pigment). Melanin is bundled up in melanosomes, which move up to the surface of the skin and disperse. This then shows up as color on the skin.
TG: What some factors that cause it?
RR: While there is no definitive cause for melasma, there are several well-known triggers. Hormones are the most common, but other possibilities include UV exposure and skin irritation. People who are more susceptible to melasma than others include those with fluctuating hormones, such as women, those who are pregnant or on hormonal birth control, and those who are genetically predisposed.
TG: How can you improve the appearance of melasma?
RR: Depending on the severity of the melasma, diligent, at-home treatments might be able to help.
Topical pigment inhibitors with tyrosinase-blocking ingredients such as hydroquinone, azelaic acid, kojic acid, arbutin, Vitamin C and licorice extract will help interrupt signals being sent to melanocytes for overproduction.
Exfoliation is important because it helps lift visible pigmentation off the skin. For acids, I like glycolic or salicylic. Fruit enzymes, such as papaya or pineapple, are also great options and are gentler than acids. Even though it isn’t technically an exfoliant, retinol is also great for pigmentation because it increases cell turnover. Pigmentation will come to the surface (where it can be sloughed off by exfoliants) more quickly. Pro Results Power Serum is my go-to recommendation for those with melasma. A physical exfoliant can also be effective in treating this condition.
Makeup can be used as a form of skincare in that it provides a barrier that protects your skin from UV light. In the case of melasma, it can also help conceal or color correct to make pigmentation less noticeable.
Cooling down the skin with ice or even frozen peas can help calm over-activity. You can also try keeping products like toner or masques in the fridge for an extra cooling effect. After being in the sun or heat, try a chilled, gel-based masque like my Bio Calm Repair Masque for instant relief. You can also apply ice or a cool compress to the back of your neck while outside to prevent your internal temperature from rising too much.
For a more severe case of melasma, professional treatments may be a more effective route to take. It’s important to get a consultation with an experienced provider who can tailor your treatment plan. There is no black and white answer as to how long it takes to get rid of melasma, but if you’re diligently treating it at home and with professional treatments, you can probably expect noticeable improvements within three months.
A series of chemical peels (salicylic, lactic or glycolic) can work to break up pigment cells that have risen to the surface.
Many people have excellent success in removing unwanted pigment with laser treatments since they can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin where melasma is formed. You’ll want to consult with a skin professional about which one is best suited for your skin.
TG: How can you prevent future melasma from forming?
RR: Those who are more prone should be diligent in making the appropriate lifestyle changes to avoid common melasma triggers. These include keeping pigment cells calm by staying out of the sun (sunscreen, hats and protective clothing), by avoiding heat, which can increase melanocyte activity, and by discussing alternative birth control options with your doctor if an uptick appears to correlate.
TG: Should people of color treat melasma differently, and are they more prone to it?
RR: Melasma stems from an overproduction of melanin, so those with deeper skin tones have more active melanocytes than those with lighter skin, and therefore are more prone to over-stimulation. Melasma is complex and occurs deeply within the skin where it can be difficult to treat. The success of treating this condition is really dependent on an individual’s skin type, tolerance, and dedication to a routine – any deviance from this can cause melasma to slowly creep back up.
Readers! If you’ve got any more Q’s for Renée or want specific product recs based on your skin type or tone, slide on into my DMs!
Christine: Renée Rouleau in Creamline, oh my God! A little starstruck here, as she and her products are amazing. Thanks for being in Creamline, Renée! Thanks for being a cool person with cool contacts, Taylore!
SO. I have, for the first time in my three decades alive, started sweetening my coffee in the morning and I am here to tell you that IT IS GREAT. But, let me back up a bit.
I grew up in an orthodox Mormon household, where I was taught that God didn’t want us to drink tea, coffee, or alcohol. My parents were even disappointed when I drank caffeinated sodas in junior high school. If I had brought home one of those batshit flavored Frappuccinos from Starbucks that 90% of my peers were enjoying regularly, I would have been grounded, or worse, pulled aside and sincerely asked if I had a testimony of our savior Jesus Christ and the prophet Joseph Smith. If you’d like to read more about that journey from super orthodox Mormonism to, um, the person I am now, you can do so here.
Anyway, my first cup of coffee was as a 21-year-old in New York City. Learning how to not seem like a total fucking rube after growing up in a world framed entirely by Mormonism and Sean Hannity involved a lot of observation and mimicry. People said they hated Chardonnay, so I figured it was probably bad. My friends, mostly food folk, ordered Negronis, so I did too.
Note: I have since learned that I do not like Negronis. Gimme a Boulevardier or a Campari and soda, but Negronis are a no for me. I find them unbalanced and would sooner drink almost anything else. Sorry if you hate me now.
I didn’t drink much coffee at first, but would sometimes order out with friends at brunch or whatever. They ordered theirs black, so I did too. I quickly grew to appreciate shops like Blue Bottle or Devocion where I could order single-origin brews, imbued with the flavor and character of their region (something that food folks call “terroir”).
Up until recently, I hadn’t even tried sweetened coffee. Also, coffee has always been a roulette-like experience for me—sometimes it gives me a boost of energy, sometimes it makes me feel like the world is ending. The stimulant effects HIT. In fact, when I was dating a filmmaker in my mid 20s and struggling to finish the screenplay we were writing together, I used coffee like Adderall to stay on track.
Anyway, I recently came across a health influencer (who I’m not going to name because I’m not sure how I feel about her) who suggests drinking your coffee after meals and with milk and sweetener to keep your blood sugar stable. I tried it. And, holy shit, it worked. I have not had a caffeine anxiety spiral since then. It also happens to taste nice.
This whole thing has made me reconsider my relationship with sugar. As a chubby little kid, I was told that sugar was literally “poison.” I associated it with poor people who were too dumb to know how to eat well or lazy people who couldn’t muster the willpower to eat a carrot. Unsurprisingly, I’ve always attached an immense amount of anxiety and shame to sugar. And, I don’t think I’m the only one—I know more than one person who would sooner do cocaine than have a sugary soda.
And, there’s a lot of sugar out there! As Americans, we eat more than we should! It’s often added unnecessarily to foods and beverages, and too much really truly can give you diabetes! I’m not disputing that.
What I am disputing is the idea that adding sugar to your coffee has any sort of moral value. Drinking black coffee does not make you Ruth Bader Ginsberg and drinking sweetened coffee does not make you bad or lazy. A strip or two of bacon for breakfast won’t give you an instant heart attack and a spoonful or two of sweetener in my coffee doesn’t mean I’m getting diabetes. I don’t like the saying “moderation in all things,” but I do like the new saying that I just made up, “use your fucking brain and also live a little.”
The American Heart Association recommends that female-bodied people have no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day. Even if I throw two teaspoons in my coffee (which I usually don’t), that’s just 1/3 of my allowance. I’ll use maple, because I’m a Vermonter and we’re contractually bound to do so, or Fat Toad Goat Milk Caramel, or Just Date Syrup. It’s lovely and something I look forward to.
And, uh, when’s the last time you were really truly excited to wake up since COVID-19 hit? We all deserve little bits of pleasure wherever we can find them, friends. For mid-pandemic me, it’s sweet coffee.
That’s all, folks! We hope you have a very lovely week, weekend, and beyond.