Melasma and Running: The Truth Behind Your Upper Lip Tan

imageAhhh! Spring has sprung and summer is just around the corner. If you’re like me, you’ve been enjoying the option of running outside without the complications of layers and frozen eyelashes. There’s nothing more amazing than those first few sunshine filled runs after a long winter of treadmills and hibernation.

I’ve always been a sun-lover, but my relationship with that bright yellow orb has become somewhat complicated over the past few summers. We all know that sweaty running can bring with it a host of inconvenient problems, such as chafing, acne, and weird tan lines. It’s a trade-off for being able to enjoy the myriad benefits of endorphins and vitamin D. I have a problem, however, that is becoming a major source of self-consciousness: the upper lip tan.

I lovingly refer to this as my Dirty Sweatstache or my Sweaty Runstache. Call it what you want, but it is a problem. After a few years of feeling insecure and having to find correct picture angles and Instagram filters that minimize the look of my ‘stache, I finally decided to consult a dermatologist to get some answers about what this is and how I can get rid of it.

Apparently melasma, as dermatologists call my ‘stache, is a fairly common condition in women. Melasma is essentially hyper pigmentation caused by an increase in melanin. The result is skin discoloration, primarily on the face but also on other highly sun-exposed parts of the body. Some melasma shows up as brown, blotchy patches on the nose, forehead or chin, while some appear as a dark shadow on the upper lip.

Several things contribute to the sunshine ‘stache. Pregnancy is a common cause (NO, I am NOT pregnant). When this condition happens during pregnancy it is called cholasma and is sometimes referred to as “the mask of pregnancy.” Other causes are the use of hormonal birth control, sun exposure, the use of certain medications, and hypothyroidism. People who are more likely to develop this condition are those who tan easily or have naturally darker skin to begin with and it often happens in areas that sweat a lot, like the upper lip.

As someone who does have naturally tan skin, frequent exposure to the sun, and an underactive thyroid, I guess this makes me the perfect candidate for melasma. Fan-freaking-tastic!

After visiting with the dermatologist, this is what was recommended/prescribed:

1. WEAR SUNSCREEN. My doctor recommends a minimum of SPF 30 on the face, but ideally SPF 50. Sunscreen should be worn year-round, not only in the summer, as UV rays are still very damaging in the winter even if they don’t appear to affect your skin. Due to the location of my melasma, a great waterproof/sweatproof sunscreen will be key, as my upper lip tends to collect a great deal of sweat when I exercise.

2. Topical Retin-A cream (tretinoin). This is a cream that promotes healthy cell turnover and can be used on the entire face. It is meant to be used at night, and can be used daily if your skin tolerates it. Retin-A minimizes the appearance of sun damage, fine lines, and makes your skin feel smoother. This cream can also make skin more sensitive to sunlight, which is another reason why a strong SPF should be used regularly.

3. Topical Hydroquinone cream. This cream, used over time, can help fade or minimize the appearance of skin discoloration. It is recommended to be used twice daily on the affected area for three months, followed by a three month break before resuming use again, indefinitely if needed.

Until I see results, you’ll find me behind carefully placed, edible, ‘stache-hiding props.

There is, unfortunately, no quick-fix for my ‘stache. The doctor said that it can take several months to see the full benefits of this regimen. Additionally, because there are no medical dangers associated with my melasma, it is unlikely my insurance provider will provide coverage for the topical creams, which can be somewhat pricey if paid out of pocket. Another option, since it is only a cosmetic disorder, is to do nothing and simply embrace, or even flaunt, it.

While I was hoping for a fast fix for my ever darkening lip shadow, I will likely begin the recommended regimen soon in hopes that I might be sweatstache-free by Labor Day. The good news is that this condition will likely subside at menopause, so I guess I can start  cheering on the advancement of my biological clock!

Do you have melasma? How do you deal with it?

I'm a college mental health counselor, runner, cyclist, wife, and mom to two strong-willed children. I started running in 2011 after the birth of my last child after years of love-hate relationships with fitness. My favorite distance is the half marathon, but I love the challenge of tackling the marathon. My biggest challenge is the mental aspect of racing, but my greatest strength is I'm stubborn and never give up! I'm a free spirit, an open book, and try to be authentic both in real life as well as in my internet life. Running has given me a place to face my fears, chase goals, and stay humble. Side note: I love cats and coffee and tacos.

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  1. I don’t get this on my upper lip, but my face does tend to tan in blotches now, if I forget my sunscreen – especially on the hollows of my cheeks and my forehead (WTF). Thanks for writing this – because now I know what it is/why it’s happening…I just thought it was one of those cruel effects of aging, and that made me sad.

  2. I have Melasma on the sides of my neck. I always say I look like the species Trill from Star Trek. The dermatologist suggested laser therapy might help, but frowned against doing it in Spring/Summer (when I had gone to see her about it) .. then I never followed up in Winter. The cost alone isn’t worth my vanity right now!

    1. It’s frustrating because Summer time is the time I’m impacted the most by it. During the Winter I’m not thinking about getting laser treatments on my face when my melasma is gone!

      1. Mine is visible year-round … moreso in the summer though once I have more sun exposure. I can put on waterproof SPF50 and I still end up with too much sun!

      2. Just curious. I am going through the exact same issue and had an IPL photofacial done. I was hopeful but now I see it coming back. Did your cream treatments work for you?

  3. Oh, the joys of being a woman! I really feel that we all have our body things that embarrass us and make us feel like we are alone in whatever *it* is. In reality, it’s usually something that others struggle with too. The human body is so interesting, and how it distributes melanin is just another example of how the body varies and responds to our environments in ways that are totally out of our control. My melanin likes to clump up into lovely moles everywhere instead of distributing evenly and doing its job (sun protection)… Thank you for speaking up about this Pumpkin!

  4. I just wanted you to know that I have developed an OCD tick of wiping sweat off my upper lip while running after reading this.

      1. Hi Pumpkin! Your Melasma can be faded. Like mine, yours is visible around the whole jaw area. I used PURGE and the lower jaw mask melted away.

        The key was seeing it as an athlete’s problem and creating something from there.You can email me for more details on my journey at:
        See my photo on twitter @ronniepatton6 ( my photo should show here but its not)

      2. Pumpkin:
        Your photo shows Melasma on the eyelids and on the forehead.Melasma cells move.

        So the dark shadow over the lip traveled from the nose and cheeks.The dark shadow around your eyes and lids comes from your eyebrows.

        The stache is just more upsetting to see as a woman.However the Melasma is a mask on the face. It comes to the face from the scalp.

        The migration of melanin cells iftom scalp to face is how sweating activates the condition .

  5. Ugh, I get this. I call it my sunstache. And mine is definitely worse during pregnancy (as well as other blotchy places on my face), when you can’t take Retin-A or Hydroquinone. So I just avoid looking in the mirror!
    Another thing that helps is getting a facial- a good microderm or mild peel will take the outer layers of skin off (in a good way, not as extreme as an actual chemical peel).

  6. You are right that SPF is key! Even on cloudy days. And I would love to tell more about what I have used and help fix this! Comments section seem like the place for details but send your email to so I can share my story.

  7. OMG. Mine is the worst. Never goes away. Tried everything. So embarrassing!!!!! Thank you for writing about it!!

  8. OMG I have this too and it’s sooooo humiliating!!!! I do laser for sun spots but you can’t laser Melasma cause it’ll make it worse! So this week I’m doing a $300 major chemical peel and I just placed my first order of Rodan+Fields Reverse skin care line and for the first time I’m feeling super excited about kicking Melasma’s ASS!!! Fingers crossed!!! Thanks so much for sharing your story – you certainly are not alone in your struggle!!!

    1. Did the chemical peel and Rodan&Fields work for you Tina? I have been looking in to the same treatments but was looking for anyone who has tried them for this issue.


  9. I call it the hitler mustache 🙁 mine is horrible. I use my dog to cover mine in pictures, I feel sad and ugly sometimes. Sometimes I joke about it but people have asked what is wrong with your face. I love the sun but if I go out it just gets darker. I am really sad about my issue, thank you for helping me not feel alone.

  10. I know this is an old post, but thank you so much. I’ve had this issue too- at first I just thought it was the light in my bathroom hitting it the wrong way, or that something I ate was around my mouth, then I noticed it just after a run and… not cool. I too was hiding it with concealer (ever try doing this after a run to take a post-run selfie?). I went out today and bought a few products with those ingredients and am going to be more diligent than ever about my sunscreen. If anyone has any other tips or product suggestions, I’m all ears.

    1. Hi Amy! I hope the post was helpful! Update: it’s been a year since I wrote this and… well it’s still sort of a battle against the melasma! I have been diligent ever since last year about sunscreen, and I think this helps a TON. The Retin A and skin bleaching cream seems to help a bit, but certainly hasn’t completely faded my discoloration.
      So: SUNSCREEN!! Also I have been better about wearing hats, as I think it can block the sun a little bit from my upper lip. 🙂

    2. Omg yes! I thought my upper lip was just dirty when I went to a McDonnalds bathroom. Turns out the light they had in there just made my melisma more noticeable. So depressed. Gonna try and be more diligent to wear it everyday

  11. I am suffering from this sunstache as well! It’s horrible and I’ve been through menopause – it just might not go away. It came about during the summer a few years ago, and yes, I was a sun worshipper. I now use sunscreen religiously, as well as moisturizer and foundation with high spf. Sometimes makeup makes it look worse. It is very finicky and difficult to treat. In my case, it even gets bad if I get hot at all and I am not even in the sun. I use finacea (prescription required), sunscreen of spf 50, and also sunblock on my upper lip area. I like Marini physical protectant. While it is still present, it is not nearly as visible as it once was as long as I do not go in the sun unprotected. I wear a hat always at the beach and if I am going to be in the sun at all. It is extremely difficult to live with, and I believe that women who suffer with this feel as if they are completely alone. I even turn down invites to any event in the summer that is going to be outdoors because I am afraid that there might not be enough shaded areas to hang out in. Although the dermatologist stated that many women have this condition, I honestly never see anyone else like me. It is just awful.

  12. I have this too. 😒 It’s so depressing and embarrassing …. I don’t even want my husband to look at me. I got some of the Porcelana skin lightening stuff anyone tried that? And how did it work for you?

    1. OMG!!!! I appreciate your post. I too have it on my upper lip. It sucks! Ive coached track for 12+ years and I’ve had to learn to wear hats, use an umbrella and wear sunscreen like crazy. I even started getting my upper lip waxed to try to help. I used to LOVE summer time, now, I just dread it😩

  13. I know this an old post, but i need to vent. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. Thank you for posting your story.
    I’ve suffered with my sunstache for years. Being a woman makes this harder to deal with. I went on a recent trip to Disneyland, and my upper lip got darker!! 😑 I was devastated! 😭 I went into a funk for a few days. I made a visit to my local Ulta Beauty store and bought some good concealer made by Clinique. It helps so it’s not so noticeable.
    I work in a dermatology office. I consulted with one of the providers and was told it is Melasma. Retinol cream, Vitamin C serum, Hydroquinone pads, and daily diligent use of sunscreen were all recommended. I recently began using the Retinol at night and Vitamin C and sunscreen in the morning. I have yet to purchase hydroquinone pads. I purchased a sunscreen by EltaMD spf 46 that is specifically formulated for skin prone to acne and hyperpigmentation. It is lightweight and has no fragrance. I learned that your sunscreen should have a minimum of at least 5% Zinc Oxide.
    Wish me luck ladies in ridding myself of my Hitler mustache. 🙌🏼 I wish everyone on this posting success in shedding their stache. 🙂