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New Research Unearths Plant Extracts as Safer Alternatives to Harmful Skin-lightening Ingredients

Harmful skin-lightening products are a scar on the beauty industry, but they remain a multibillion-dollar global enterprise. However, there might be a safer alternative for those who want to lighten up – plants found in several African countries, including South Africa. 

Evidence-based health risks are associated with the chronic use of non-regulated skin lighteners, such as irritant dermatitis, ochronosis and infections. Thus, there is an urgent need for safer alternatives. Laurentia Opperman recently completed her Master of Science in Medical Biosciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and she honed in on skin-lightening. 

“My honours project was focused on a possible alternative to current skin cancer treatments, and one of my fellow honours students were conducting a pilot study on skin lightening as her honours project under the supervision of Dr Farzana Fisher (nee Rahiman), which even back then I thought was very interesting,” said Opperman. 

After graduating in 2018, she intended to enter the job market, but Dr Rahiman proposed that she continue the research. She took her lecturer’s advice, and her funding application was approved. 

Opperman highlighted the potential of using plant extracts from Africa’s rich biodiversity as safer alternatives to synthesised skin-lightening products as part of her research. Tyrosinase, a key focus of Opperman’s research, is an enzyme found in plant and animal tissues that plays a critical role in melanogenesis, which is the process by which melanin is produced.

She said: “As I was reading on this subject [of skin lightening], I understood how far it reaches and how little is known about it within the South African context, specifically in the Western Cape. The pilot study conducted under Dr Rahiman’s supervision showed that this practice is prevalent among young adults in the Western Cape, and I wanted to explore that further in a larger population that could be more representative of our young people.”

“I was very curious about why it is so popular, what contributes to it, and what our young people understand about the practice. Do they understand the side effects associated with it? Where do they get these products? With the guidance of Dr Rahiman, we were able to build the rest of my Masters project around that and look at it on a broader scale.”

 

Her research identified 35 plant species across 15 African countries and nine South African provinces with potential for use in skin lightening.  In addition to this, she tested the skin-lightening efficacy of some of these plants on cell lines. She showed that these plants have inhibitory effects on tyrosinase activity without being toxic to cells, emphasising their promise as alternative skin-lightening agents.

Opperman’s findings suggest that African plants could replace harmful chemicals in skin lighteners, and further research and toxicity studies are needed.

 

According to a 2023 article by the World Health Organization (WHO), the demand for skin-lightening products is skyrocketing. 

“Skin-lightening products don’t just pose a risk to the user – children can be exposed through breastmilk, and food chains can become contaminated when cosmetics are washed off into wastewater. In addition, the compound can travel far from its point of dispersal, accumulating in the earth, water and soil without breaking down in the environment,” the article warned.

“With demand for skin-lightening products projected to grow to US$11.8-billion by 2026, fuelled by a growing middle class in the Asia-Pacific region and changing demographics in Africa and the Caribbean, the use of harmful ingredients in skin-lightening products is a global issue.”