Hyperpigmentary disorders such as melasma, café au lait spot and solar lentigo are typically treated through the use of topical agents that disrupt the activity of tyrosinase, a key enzyme in the production of melanin (melanogenesis), but natural treatments for hyperpigmentation are also gaining attention.Preventing hyperpigmentation is preferable, however, as it is often difficult to lighten the skin after hyperpigmentation has already occurred. Over-the-counter skin lightening creams do exist, as do pharmaceutical skin lightening solutions, but you may be surprised to note that there are also natural treatments for hyperpigmentation that may actually help improve skin health.
Flaxseed Oil for Skin-Lightening
Natural treatments for hyperpigmentation include flaxseed oil – a substance found to induce a lightening effect on the hyperpigmented skin of guinea pigs exposed to ultraviolet light. Ando, et al (1998), used linoleic acid (LA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and oleic acid (OA) in tests to determine skin lightening benefits and found that ALA, an essential fatty acid found in abundance in flaxseed oil, was most effective in reducing skin hyperpigmentation, followed by LA, and then by OA.
The researchers noted that the number of melanocytes (pigment-producing skin cells) did not decline in the areas of skin treated, suggesting that the pigment-lightening effect was due to something other than melanocyte depletion, such as suppression of melanin production and increased removal of melanin from the epidermis. Further tests confirmed that LA and ALA increased the turnover of skin cells in the stratum corneum, a layer of the epidermis that is involved in removing melanin.
Artocarpus communis for Skin Hyperpigmentation
Other studies have found that UV skin damage can be prevented through increased intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, and that an extract of Artocarpus communis is effective in reducing skin scaliness, epidermis thickness and sunburn cells during UV irradiation (Lee et al., 2013, Fu et al., 2014). Artocarpus communis also decreased the production of reactive oxygen species and lipid peroxidation, as well as pro-inflammatory cytokines like tumour necrosis factor-a (TNF-a) and interleukin 1ß, both of which are involved in the development of skin cancer.
Artocarpus communis even decreased the synthesis of cytosolic phospholipase A2, cyclooxygenase, inducible nitric oxide synthase and vascular cell adhesion molecular-1 via inhibiting TNF-a-independent pathways; these are factors involved in sunburn development, meaning that this plant extract, when applied topically, may help prevent the damage that results in sunburn symptoms. Artocarpus communis is traditionally used to prevent sun-damage, acne and dermatitis.
Korean Ginseng and Cyrtonium fortunei as Skin-Lightening Agents
A traditional Korean medicinal plant, Cyrtonium fortunei J. Smith, has also been found to have skin depigmenting properties, primarily through inhibition of tyrosinase activity and melanin production (Choi, 2013). In guinea pigs, application of a methanolic extract of Cyrtomium fortunei J. Smith helped reduce UV-induced hyperpigmentation in brown guinea pig skin, making it a potentially useful addition to topical creams for preventing sun exposure-associated skin darkening.
Ginseng seed has also been found to exhibit depigmenting activity by inhibiting melanin production through inhibition of tyrosinase. An ethanol extract of ginseng seed was applied to melan-a-cells at a concentration of 100ppm (parts per million) and a resulting 35.1% reduction in melanin production was observed, without cytotoxicity (Lee et al., 2014). Typically, ginseng root is used to produce traditional adaptogenic medicines; the seed it usually discarded but these researchers have found a potential use of ginseng seed in creams used for lightening skin.
Seaweed and Skin Pigmentation
A type of seaweed, namely Sargassum polycystum, has also been found to have inhibitory effects on skin pigmentation, leading to a potential application in skin-lightening cosmetics and creams. This traditional natural treatment for hyperpigmentation was tested by Chan, Kim and Cheah (2011) and was seen to significantly inhibit cellular tyrosinase activity as well as basal and a-MSH-stimulated melanin production in B16F10 cells.
Chia Seed and Pomegranate for Treating Hyperpigmentation
Another study that will be published in September 2014 in the Fitoterapia journal details the benefits of chia seed and pomegranate extracts on downregulating melanin production (Diwakar et al., 2014). The authors point out that not only do the essential fatty acids, omega 3 and omega 6, play a role in maintaining skin hydration and the stratum corneum epidermal barrier, they also influence melanogenesis in epidermal melanocytes.
Chia seed (Salvia hispanica) is a rich source of linolenic acid and linoleic acid and was shown to inhibit melanin biosynthesis in melan-a-cells. When combined with pomegranate fruit extract the chia seed extract inhibited melanin production, possibly through downregulated expression of genes related to melanin synthesis (Tyr, Tyrp1, and Mc1r).
Natural Treatments for Hyperpigmentation
Other natural substances have also been found to affect melanin production. These include substances that reduce melanin synthesis by inhibiting melanosome transfer, such as niacinamide (vitamin B3), lecithins, and soybean milk extracts. Other skin-lightening agents work to reduce melanin production through post-transcriptional control of tyrosinase, such as LA, ALA, and phospholipase D2.
Other skin-lightening agents inhibit tyrosinase activity, and include:
- Arbutin (found in bearberry/uva ursi)
- Kojic acid (derived from fungi such as Aspergillus oryzae)
- Phenolic compounds
- Ellagic acid (found in blackberries, cranberries, pecans, pomegranates, raspberries, strawberries, walnuts, wolfberries, and grapes)
- Oxyresveratrol (found in white mulberry and the heartwood of Artocarpus lakoocha)
- Resveratrol (found in red grapes)
- Aloesin (from aloe vera).
Additionally, glucosamine may have a skin-lightening effect by inhibiting tyrosinase maturation, as might calcium d-pantetheine- S-sulphonate.
A range of synthetic chemicals appear in skin-lightening creams and many of these have been found to help decrease melanin synthesis and to increase the elimination of existing melanin to treat hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, some formulations contain parabens, phthalates, and other chemicals that can have harmful effects on the skin and actually increase sun-induced skin damage and sensitivity to ultraviolet light.
When choosing a natural skin-lightening cream to treat areas of hyperpigmentation it is important to check the ingredients of any product and see if there is any real evidence for the effectiveness of the active ingredients.
Some products contain so little of a so-called active component that they are unlikely to be helpful. Others may contain chemicals that counteract any benefits from the key ingredients. Treating hyperpigmented skin also necessitates reducing exposure to the sun in order to decrease melanin production. The use of sunscreen on hyperpigmented areas can help, as can covering up with UV-proof clothing and/or staying in the shade whenever possible.
Ando H, Ryu A, Hashimoto A, Oka M, Ichihashi M. (1998). Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid lightens ultraviolet-induced hyperpigmentation of the skin. Arch Dermatol Res. Jul;290(7):375-81. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9749992
Choi SY. (2013). Inhibitory effects of Cyrtomium fortunei J. Smith root extract on melanogenesis. Pharmacogn Mag. Jul;9(35):227-30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23930006
Lee CW, Ko HH, Chai CY, Chen WT, Lin CC, Yen FL. (2013). Effect of Artocarpus communis Extract on UVB Irradiation-Induced Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Hairless Mice. Int J Mol Sci. 2013 Feb 12;14(2):3860-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23403620
Chan YY, Kim KH, Cheah SH. (2011). Inhibitory effects of Sargassum polycystum on tyrosinase activity and melanin formation in B16F10 murine melanoma cells. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Oct 11;137(3):1183-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21810462
Fu YT, Lee CW, Ko HH, Yen FL. (2014). Extracts of Artocarpus communis decrease a-melanocyte stimulating hormone-induced melanogenesis through activation of ERK and JNK signaling pathways. ScientificWorldJournal. Mar 5;2014:724314. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24737988
Lee Y, Kim KT, Kim SS, Hur J, Ha SK, Cho CW, Choi SY. (2014). Inhibitory effects of ginseng seed on melanin biosynthesis. Pharmacogn Mag. 2014 Apr;10(Suppl 2):S272-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24991102
Diwakar G, Rana J, Saito L, Vredeveld D, Zemaitis D, Scholten J. (2014). Inhibitory effect of a novel combination of Salvia hispanica (chia) seed and Punica granatum (pomegranate) fruit extracts on melanin production. Fitoterapia. 2014 Sep;97C:164-171. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909999
Kim, H., Choi, H-R., Kim, D-S., Park, K-C., (2012). Topical Hypopigmenting Agents for Pigmentary Disorders and Their Mechanisms of Action. Ann Dermatol. Feb 24(1): 1–6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22363147