What is a Sun Mustache and How to Avoid Getting One

Get helpful prevention tips from a dermatologist
A person receiving a medical skin treatment above their lips at a doctor's office

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you know how important it is to protect your skin while you’re in the sun. Not doing so can put you at risk for sunburn, sun damage, premature aging or even skin cancer. Another thing that can happen — you could end up with a sun mustache.  

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While a sun mustache isn’t on the same level as skin cancer or sunburn, it can still be annoying and unsightly.  

Dermatologist Asfa Akhtar, DO, shares the science behind sun mustaches and gives a few tips for how you can prevent them.  

What causes a sun mustache? 

Before we go into the formation of sun mustaches, we have to take a step back and talk about the main component of them — melanin.  

“Sun mustaches are the result of excess melanin. Melanin is the substance that gives our eyes and skin their color. Melanocytes, which are pigment cells that reside in the innermost layer of the epidermis, are responsible for producing melanin. When excess melanin is produced, it causes the skin to darken. The result of this is known as hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Akhtar.  

When the skin above the upper lip darkens after an extended period of sun exposure, you’re left with a sun mustache. Dr. Akhtar adds that sun mustaches are a form of melasma.  

What is melasma? 

“Melasma is also known as chloasma or pregnancy mask. But you don’t have to be pregnant to get melasma,” says Dr. Akhtar.  

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She adds that melasma is a commonly acquired pigmentary disorder and is essentially hyperpigmentation. Melasma can appear as symmetrical, darkened patches on exposed areas of the body, especially the face.  

What causes a sun mustache? 

“A sun mustache is caused by a complex interplay of sun exposure, family history, hormonal influences, thyroid disease and medications that lead to molecular signaling within the skin. The result is excessive melanin in the inner and outer layers of the skin,” Dr. Akhtar says.  

Dr. Akhtar points out that skin care products can contribute to the development of sun mustaches. She says the excessive use of ingredients such as hydroquinone, retinol and alpha hydroxy acids can make sun mustaches worse. If you are using these products, she recommends talking to a dermatologist to determine the best course of action.  

How to prevent sun mustaches 

Sun mustaches are often hard to treat because they can reoccur frequently. Dr. Akhtar suggests a multi-modal approach to successfully treat this skin condition. Treatment regimens usually include sun avoidance, one or more topical agents, oral medications and light or laser therapy. Limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen, especially on your face, can also help prevent melasma mustaches. 

“When choosing a sunscreen, I recommend one that has physical blockers in it such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You can even find physical sunscreens that are tinted so they won’t leave a white film on the skin. Physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin so it physically shields it and deflects harmful UV rays.” 

But Dr. Akhtar says just applying sunscreen is not enough protection. You’ll need to add a stylish, yet helpful, accessory as well.

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“Hats with a wide brim that are rated for sun protection should be used. Look for an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50+.” 

Sun mustache treatment options to avoid  

According to Dr. Akhtar, some treatment options for sun mustaches can actually make them worse. 

“Treatment options for melasma can include whitening agents, chemical peels, lasers and light therapy. However, some of these solutions can cause adverse effects like spots of hyperpigmentation, acne, irritation as well as rebound hyperpigmentation — a form the condition that is much harder to treat.” 

If you are looking for ways to get rid of melasma, talk to a dermatologist first. They can help prevent additional complications and find treatment options that line up with your cosmetic goals.  

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