One of the frequently overlooked truths of skin care is that darker skin tends to get darker when it is injured, infected, inflamed, or irritated. People who have golden, brown, or nearly black skin tones are especially susceptible to a phenomenon called hyperpigmentation, which leaves dark spots after acne or sunburn.
Acne is especially problematic for people who have rich, dark skin pigments, but not just because of pimples. Many people who have Asian, African, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern skin tones actually find the “spots” left behind after pimples heal more of a cosmetic problem than the pimples themselves. Fortunately, curcumin can help prevent spots and lighten them after they occur—without the risks of the more frequently recommended hydroquinone. People who use hydroquinone sometimes find that the cosmetic results of using the wrong product can be catastrophic.
A Cosmetic Catastrophe Caused By Choosing the Wrong Lightening Production
Natural products expert Robert Rister tells the story of his first week working for a US-based producer of natural skin care products. He walked into his Los Angeles office to be handed the phone by one of his colleagues. At the other end of the line was a hysterical cosmetics salesperson in China.
Not just one or two but several dozen of this cosmetologist's clients had used a product to remove age spots. At first the product had worked beautifully. Hyperpigmented skin filled with age spots and acne marks had beenreplaced by clear, beautiful skin.
Then the skin treated with the product (which Robert had not formulated) began to turn permanently black and blue. The problem Robert encountered was that pigments can change when the skin uses them to fight inflammation. The product that the ambitious cosmetics salesperson who had sunk her life savings into her skin care products business was that due to the fact that skin pigments don't just give the skin its tone.
Skin Pigment Isn't Just For Skin Color
Almost everyone's skin contains more or less of an antioxidant pigment known as melanin. Tiny packets of melanin are scattered throughout the basal layer underlying the skin, about a depth of 25 cells down, and give the skin its distinctive tones, each skin tone tied to variations in the type and amount of melanin the skin produces.
A kind of melanin known as eumelanin gives the skin, especially around the nipples, a brown or black skin tone. People of African descent usually have genes that code for production of high levels of eumelanin.
Another kind of melanin known as pheomelanin imparts a red or pink tone to the skin. This pigment may also accumulate in red hair and freckles.
A third common kind of melanin known as neuromelanin serves as an antioxidant in the brain, but does not accumulate in the skin except when there are certain kinds of skin cancer.
Melanin doesn't just give the skin its hue. (Actually, melanin is just one of several factors in skin tone. The color of your skin also depends on the presence of beta-carotene, the orange pigment found in foods like carrots, in your skin, as well as the health of your blood circulation. ) Melanin does double duty as an antioxidant.
One of the most important tasks of melanin as an antioxidant is to protect the skin from sun damage. Eumelanin serves as a catalyst for chemical reactions that protect the DNA of the active, lower layers of the skin from destruction during sunburn. Eumelanin and pheomelanin also help the skin repair itself after acne and other kind of infection. The skin makes enormous amounts of melanin to stop acne inflammation and sunburn.
For the unfortunate users of the hydroquinone skin care product in China, a product that contained no curcumin at all, it turned out that melanin was working overtime to protect the skin. The users of the product all lived in close proximity to a coal tar plant that emitted toxic fumes into the air day and night, those fumes in constant contact with the skin. It's amazing, but explainable, that more people didn't have the same problem.
Why Some People Are Especially Susceptible to Skin Spots
Pale or fair skin produces relatively little melanin to fight sunburn and inflammation. It burns easily but melanin does not accumulate to produce permanent spots.
Richly pigmented brown and black skin makes a great deal of melanin. People with black skin usually do not suffer sunburn at all. When their skin is cut, scraped, or infected, however, the melanin-producing melanocytes in the basal layer just beneath the surface of the skin go into overdrive.
Black and brown eumelanin produces noticeable, and often permanent black or brown spots. But an even more troubling phenomenon can occur in some people who have Asian skin types.
Some people who have Asian skin types have a genetic variation that makes their skins susceptible to a seldom-mentioned but surprisingly common condition known as exogenous ochronosis. When the skin of someone who is susceptible to this condition comes in contact with the commonly prescribed skin lightening agent hydroquinone, it accumulates a compound called homogentisic acid.
This acid literally wears holes in the skin. The skin becomes red and itchy. Inflammation triggers the production of melanin, which forms spots, but not the typical black or brown spots. In exogenous ochronosis, the skin often forms permanent blue or purple spots, which are particularly noticeable on Asian skin with deep golden skin tones.
The overproduction of the “healing” antioxidant melanin doesn't just cause spots. The skin can “over repair” itself so permanent bumps rise from the contour of the skin to make the black and blue pigments even more prominent.
With this highly undesirable side effect, you would think that people with Asian skin types would shun skin lightening products that contain hydroquinone. The problem is that doctors, aestheticians, cosmetologists, and skin care product salespeople don't know about the potential problem. People use hydroquinone products and their age spots, acne spots, brown spots, and melasma temporarily disappear. Several weeks to several months after it is to late to return the product, then blue and purple spots appear.
And there are even some people who have African, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Native American, Polynesian, or European skin types who get the same reaction to the disease.
Curcumin for Safe Skin Lightening
Skin care scientists speculated that curcumin might be a safe alternative to hydroquinone for treating skin spots. Curcumin is also a potent antioxidant, but the amount of curcumin applied to the face can be controlled. Instead of the skin's producing more and more melanin that later accumulates as hyperpigmentation, it should be possible to use just the right amount of curcumin to counteract the inflammatory process that leads to the disfiguring black, blue, or purple spots in ochronosis.
There's just one problem. Curcumin is bright orange. While bright orange might be a little more flattering to Asian skin tones than purple, it's still an unnatural look on the skin. What could the scientists do?
It turns out that curcumin consists of more than one chemical. One of the naturally occurring chemicals in the curcumin extracted from turmeric is tetrahydrocurcumin. Tetrahydrocurcumin is colorless.
It is also a stronger antioxidant than two other natural products used to lighten skin, kojic acid and vitamin C. But would it actually work?
The Sabinsa Corporation, the world's largest producer of curcumin products and the source of funding for a lot of curcumin research, recruited 50 men and women in the Philippines who were willing to try both tetrahydrocurcumin and hydroquinone for treatment of age spots on their forearms¹. For 4 weeks they treated four areas of forearm skin with 4% hydroquinone, 1/4% tetrahydrocurcumin, a solution of sodium lauryl sulfate (the irritant chemical in many shampoos and soaps), or water. Changes in their skin pigment were measured with an instrument called a mexameter.
Neither the researchers nor the study volunteers knew which product was applied to which are of their skin. The participants in the study saw a dermatologist twice a day every day for four weeks, at 8 am and 5 pm. Both the study volunteers and the doctors were keeping careful watch for any signs of itch, redness, dryness, or irritation, or any signs of the development of black, blue, or purple spots.
At the end of four weeks, no one in the study had suffered any irritation, inflammation, itch, or discoloration as the result of using any of the four products. Both the curcumin cream and the standard hydroquinone cream removed discoloration equally well. Now the researchers knew that tetrahydrocurcumin worked just as well as the much more risky hydroquinone products that had caused so much grief for so many people.
It's a shame Robert's predecessor hadn't known about tetrahydrocurcumin. Fortunately, Robert and his colleagues did.
Tetrahydrocurcumin To the Rescue
To undo the damage done to nearly 3 dozen women in China, Robert's company rushed a special, customized formulation of tetrahydrocurcumin to the very angry customers. All but 3 women eventually achieved completely clear skin despite their earlier cosmetic disaster. But tetrahydrocurcumin in over the counter skin care products was not at that time commercially available.
It is now. A Sabinsa subsidiary known as Sami Labs, in Bangalore, India makes an ingredient called SabiWhite, which contains the 0. 25% tetrahydrocurcumin that Sabinsa researchers proved to be effective in their clinical trial in the Philippines. Products made with SabiWhite are safe for skin lightening for people who have rich, golden skin tones. They are safe for people who have deep brown or “black” or even fair skin tones. SabiWhite works for lightening skin without the dreaded possibility of turning skin black and blue.
What About Tetrahydrocurcumin for Skin Whitening?
People in most of the English-speaking countries tend to think of skin lightening and skin whitening as the same thing, but in much of Asia and in parts of Africa they are quite different.
Skin lightening is a process that takes away excessive pigmentation that occurs in spots. Skin whitening is a process that lightens the tone of the entire skin whether it is spotted or not. In many countries, lighter skin is still associated with less work in the sun, and higher social status. Natural products ranging from turmeric to kojic acid extracted from licorice to even human placenta have been used for whitening the skin.
Tetrahydrocurcumin is safe for skin whitening, but the amounts of skin cream needed are relatively large. Whichever product is used for skin whitening, it is important to avoid exposure to the sun to preserve the effect, and if sun exposure is minimal, then it is necessary to supplement with vitamin D (up to 1,000 IU per day)².
- Majeed et al. US Patent Number 6,653,327. Cross regulin composition of turmeric-derived tetrahydrocurcuminoids for skin lightening and protection against UV-B rays.
- Rattan SJ, Ali RE. Hormetic prevention of molecular damage during cellular aging of human skin keratinocytes. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2996 Apri; 1100: 424-30.