In today’s society, there are many different ethnicities, cultures, and countries of origin for people who are living side-by-side. One look around and you’ll see a variety of looks, facial features, body types, and skin colors and tones that range from pale alabaster white to deep, dark ebony black.
So how did we end up with this rainbow of skin colors? The key to skin color is melanin, and understanding melanin will provide the answers to questions you may have about skin color and melanin’s impact on a condition called hyperpigmentation, also known as age spots or sun spots.
The skin color differences among individuals are due to the type and amounts of melanin produced by the melanin forming cells in the skin, called melanocytes. Just to give you an idea of how complex this process is, there are around 150 different genes that affect skin color in mice. It is believed that there is a similar complexity of genes in humans.
Melanin’s role is a key one: protect our skin from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. Once the UV rays, both UV/A and UV/B reach the skin cells, all kinds of problems begin. Ultraviolet light causes inflammation, DNA damage, and mitochondrial mutation. In addition, it causes the cell matrix to degrade, while breaking down collagen and elastin in the skin.
Another problem that UV exposure causes is reactive oxidative stress, which causes additional inflammatory damage in the skin’s cells. Over many years, heredity and evolutionary changes occurred, people living near the equator started accumulating more and darker melanin, which helps prevent the inflammatory response.
Melanin helped protect people from skin cell damage who were constantly exposed to sunlight. And it isn’t only increased melanin production in the skin. People living near the equator also have much higher levels of melanin in their iris and choroid of their eyes, protecting their eyes from UV light.
But despite knowledge and proof that UV exposure could cause skin cancer, people ignored the warnings. In the 1950’s, tanning became fashionable, which was and still is an ongoing problem.
Hyperpigmentation, also called age spots, liver spots (though there's no connection between these spots and the liver), and sun spots, have a variety of causes, including aging.
In some instances, the spots are caused by melanin overproduction, while in other cases the melanocytes (the cells producing melanin) are either lost or damaged. So what are the other causes of hyperpigmentation and uneven pigmentation?
There are multiple causes, but most cases are caused by injuries like cuts and burns (known as focal hyperpigmentation), while certain medications can cause diffuse hyperpigmentation. Certain diseases and skin conditions can also cause hyperpigmentation.
Ultraviolet rays causing mutations in the skin cells often trigger excess production of melanin. Another trigger of the inflammatory response is acne, which causes a post-inflammatory pigmentation response. People with brown or gray-brown patches have melasma, which is quite common.
Medications like birth control pills, pregnancy, and hormone therapy can cause it as well.
The importance of using sun protection if any of these conditions currently pertain to you cannot be overstated.
Often your doctor may request a skin biopsy to determine what type of hyperpigmentation is involved.
Vitiligo is a condition that’s diagnosed when there is a loss of pigmentation in various sections of skin. While the exact cause is still unknown, many scientists believe that it may be an autoimmune disease, or caused by an inflammatory response to oxidative stress. Viruses may also be a component of this skin disease.
Skin lightening and brightening is used to treat uneven pigmentation and hyperpigmentation. Unfortunately, many cultures still view skin color as part of a class structure, equating lighter skin with a “higher class.”
Sadly, many will risk their health and even their lives for an opportunity to lighten their skin. It’s so popular, in fact, that skin lightening has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
The reason it’s health and life-threatening is due to the nature of the chemicals that are used to lighten skin. Many products are very dangerous not only to the skin, but to the body as a whole!
One example is mercury, an ingredient that has been used since the 1900’s to whiten skin. The problem is that it causes skin and kidney damage, skin discoloration (which can be permanent!) and can seriously impact brain function.
Another ingredient to avoid is steroids. While many doctors prescribe steroids and corticosteroids for skin inflammation, they’re generally prescribed for a very specific and typically short amount of time to prevent long-term damage. Avoid any products that list steroids as ingredients that haven’t been prescribed by your physician.
Hydroquinone is worth mentioning because surprisingly, it is safe if used properly. When the chemical was banned in both Africa and in Europe, it contained steroids and other harmful ingredients. In a pure, pharmaceutical form, it is relatively safe as long as it’s used in concentrations of 2% or less. New FDA guidelines are recommending 1.5% concentration in over-the-counter products.
The downside of hydroquinone is the side effects when used improperly or in concentrations above the recommended percentages. These can include skin irritation, contact dermatitis, and virtually untreatable exogenous ochronosis in people who have dark skin.
The key is to be mindful of the products you use. Check the labels for ingredients, and avoid any products with steroids, mercury, or hydroquinone in excess of 2%.
While steroids and products with mercury pose dangerous health risks, the newer topical skin lightening agents used to treat skin pigmentation disorders are made from botanical extracts.
These now include compounds like aloesin, arbutin, flavonoids, yeast derivatives, and polyphenols, all natural ingredients that are used to lighten skin without any toxic or adverse effects.
Polyphenols, for example, are compounds found in many plants and have antioxidant properties that are found to be stronger than vitamins C and E. Another promising skin-lightening agent is ginseng. And extracts from the gingko tree have demonstrated powerful free radical scavenger activity as well.
When combined with arbutin, aloesin (which is isolated from the aloe plant) showed an ability to inhibit melanin production. And here’s a surprising finding: flavonoids have a structure similar to hydroquinone without any of the potential side effects!
Another ingredient under investigation is niacinamide, a biologically active form of vitamin B3. It’s found in many different root vegetables, and clinical studies have shown that it produces a reversible reduction in hyperpigmented skin lesions along with increased skin lightening abilities when applied topically for 4 weeks.
Not surprisingly, compounds from traditional Chinese herbal medicines showed promising results in skin lightening applications. Clinical trials are currently underway with human subjects and the results may lead to a whole new group of ingredients that pose no toxic or adverse effects.
Other plant extracts under investigation include licorice and mulberry leaves, both having a role for skin lightening in cosmetic formulations. While more research is needed, these are exciting findings that show natural plant extracts can produce skin-lightening results with no side effects whatsoever.
Many of the plants studied also have excellent antioxidant properties, making these ingredients an excellent choice in product formulations for anti-aging preparations.
There is no question that many plant extracts offer new promise as safe and effective skin lightening ingredients!
Many skin-lightening products currently available also have fruit and plant extracts as part of their product formulations and can be used with complete confidence in their safety.
As you begin understanding melanin and how to safely treat hyperpigmentation you’ll find these products to be extremely useful and able to meet your needs.