We all know that we tan when our skin is exposed to the sun.
This happens because some of our skin cells release a reddish-brown pigment called ‘melanin’, which protects the skin from the sun by absorbing its UV rays. Melanin is also what gives our skin and hair its colour.1
Sometimes, however, in a condition known as ‘hyperpigmentation’ (or, simply, ‘pigmentation’) the production of melanin goes into overdrive, leaving spots of excess melanin in the skin. This makes certain patches of our skin turn to a darker shade.
What causes this excess production of melanin? For one, constant exposure to the sun’s UV rays creates free radical damage in the skin.2 Pigmentation can be one of these signs, with the actual damage generally taking place far before any physical evidence of them is seen.3 Our genetic make up and hormonal imbalances also affect the production of melanin in our skin.
While there are several types of treatments currently being explored (like depigmentation agents and lasers), not all of these are recommended since they could cause skin trauma and worsen the situation.
The most effective way to treat pigmentation seems to be by protecting the skin from the sun’s UV rays.
Apart from physically protecting ourselves from the sun (through a broad-spectrum sunscreen), we can also try to protect ourselves internally, with the help of antioxidants.
Antioxidants are molecules that stabilise free radicals, preventing them from causing damage, and even reducing the damage they cause. While the body has its own natural antioxidants, a bad diet and environmental factors (like pollution) can create more free radicals than they’re able to keep up with.
Increasing our consumption of foods rich in antioxidants is always a great idea. Especially:
Antioxidants that bind to copper.
The body needs copper in order to produce melanin. Some antioxidants bind themselves to copper, leaving it unavailable for melanin production – a simple but easy way to combat excess melanin.
Vitamin C is a great example of these antioxidants. Foods rich in vitamin C include bell peppers, dark leafy vegetables, citrus fruits (like oranges), tomatoes, peas and papayas.
And antioxidants that preserve the body’s natural antioxidants.
Some antioxidants like vitamin E and lycopene (an antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red colour) can neutralise the free radicals before they create damage. This leaves the body’s natural antioxidants free to maintain the skin’s health in other ways.4
Interestingly, combining vitamin C and vitamin E has been shown to have more effective and longer-lasting results. In one study, the application of vitamin C and E together on the skin of mice diminished tanning by 70-80%!5
For those of us who find it difficult to get enough of these nutrients in our everyday diet, it may be time to look at getting them through supplements. After all, their benefits don’t stop at addressing skin pigmentation, but go on to play an extremely important role in maintaining (or improving, for that matter) our health in vast, profound ways.
1. Lin JY, et al.Nature 2007, 445(7130): 843-850.
2. van Drielen K, et al.The British journal of dermatology 2015.
3. Heenen M, et al.Journal of photochemistry and photobiology B, Biology 2001, 63(1-3): 84-87.
4. Briganti S, et al.Pigment cell research / sponsored by the European Society for Pigment Cell Research and the International Pigment Cell Society 2003, 16(2): 101-110.
5. Quevedo WC, Jr., et al.Pigment cell research / sponsored by the European Society for Pigment Cell Research and the International Pigment Cell Society 2000,13(2): 89-98.