Glutathione is a little known molecule that has become pivotal in advanced skincare routines. For those in the know, it is supposed to be the secret to younger looking and flawless skin. It is widely available in over the counter products and comes in many different forms. However, glutathione is not without its controversies or risks. In this guide, we explore the role and benefits of glutathione for skin. We also compare it with other established anti-ageing and skin brightening products and review if you should and how to add glutathione in your skincare routine.
What is Glutathione?
Glutathione is a naturally occurring antioxidant. This tripeptide is made up of cysteine, glutamic acid and glycine. In the body, glutathione plays a vital role in reducing oxidative stress. It supports detoxification and maintains cell health. These are all critical for maintaining the skin’s integrity and youthful appearance.
Interestingly, glutathione was first discovered in 1888 by a biologist called J. de Rey-Pailhade when he was studying a substance derived from yeast. However, its chemical structure was only identified in 1921 by the scientist Frederick Gowland Hopkins. Historically, glutathione’s uses were mainly medical and based around its crucial role in cellular defense and metabolism. Glutathione plays a vital role in managing conditions that involve oxidative stress, such as Parkinson’s disease, where it helps in mitigating neuronal damage. In respiratory medicine, it is used for treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma to reduce inflammation in the airways. Some cancer treatment protocols also using glutathione to reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy by protecting healthy cells from oxidative damage. Additionally, glutathione is also used to treat liver diseases, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, by supporting detoxification processes.
The discovery of glutathione’s benefits for skin emerged as scientists began exploring the impact of oxidative stress and melanin production on skin health. They uncovered that glutathione played a key role in protecting skin cells from oxidative damage and premature ageing caused by environmental aggressors like UV rays and pollution. Further research revealed its inhibitory effect on tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in melanin production, highlighting its potential in addressing hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone. These findings opened up new avenues in skincare, leading to the integration of glutathione into various anti-ageing and brightening skincare products.
The Benefits of Glutathione for Skin
Glutathiones antioxidant properties translates to a number of benefits for skin. The main benefits are protecting skin cells from free radical damage, reduction of hyperpigmentation and anti-aging effects.
Glutathione protects the skin from environmental damage and oxidative stress by neutralising free radicals. These are normally key causes of premature aging and skin dullness. Pollutants, UV radiation and other environmental factors induce oxidative stress which leads to the breakdown of collagen and elastin. These are the proteins responsible for maintaining skin’s firmness and elasticity and so when they are degraded, skin starts to show signs of ageing. However, glutathione can step in as a defensive hero and prevent oxidative stress thus prevent premature skin ageing. It also helps improve and maintain the quality and radiance of the skin.
Evening Out Skin Tone
The ability of glutathione to control pigmentation is one of its most sought after benefits in skincare. It does this by inhibiting tyrosinase, the enzyme needed to produce melanin by the pigment producing cells in the skin (melanocytes). Excessive melanin production can lead to hyperpigmentation which normally presents as dark spots or patches and uneven skin tone. By regulating tyrosinase activity, glutathione can reduce excess melanin which then helps fade hyperpigmentation. This action not only contributes to a more even and balanced skin tone but also boosts overall skin brightness.
Glutathione plays a role in supporting tissue repair and regeneration which are crucial for maintaining skin elasticity. As the skin ages, it produces less collagen and elastin which leads to the formation of fine lines, wrinkles and a loss of firmness. Glutathione helps combat these age-related changes by stimulating the repair of damaged tissues and promoting production of new healthy skin cells. This action not only helps in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles but also increases the skin’s overall resilience and suppleness.
Preparations in Skincare
There are a number of forms of glutathione that are used in skincare. Below is an overview of the three main ways glutathione is used as well as their risks:
- Injections: This is the most fast-acting and potent way to deliver glutathione. However, there are serious risks including potential allergic reactions, infections, kidney or thyroid damage, toxicity and ochronosis.
- Topical: Creams and serums with glutathione offer targeted skin benefits with minimal risk. As such this is the recommended way to use glutathione for skin benefits. There is a small risk of allergy and irritation but these are rare if used correctly.
- Oral: These are supposed to enhance the body’s glutathione levels and hence provide systemic antioxidant benefits. There are however some serious risks including allergic reaction, stomach upset, worsening of asthma, toxicity and possible interference with other medications.
How Glutathione Compares With Other Anti-Ageing & Skin Brightening Skincare Ingredients
In skincare, glutathione has a unique position due to its multi roles. This single ingredient is an anti-oxidant, anti-aging and hyperpigmentation treatment.
When compared to other well known antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E, glutathione stands out for its comprehensive cellular protection. Vitamin C is famous for its skin brightening properties and ability to boost collagen production. This makes it a favourite for targeting signs of aging and photo damage. Vitamin E, is mainly known for its moisturising benefits. It mainly shields the skin from environmental damage and works well with Vitamin C to enhance its stability and efficacy.
What sets glutathione apart from both of these is its intrinsic ability to not only combat oxidative stress at a cellular level but also its influence on melanin production. This makes it more powerful at targeting cell defence and repair at the deeper level. However, the good news is that you can use glutathione in in tandem with other antioxidants to increase each other’s stability and benefits. These anti-oxidant cocktails provide multi layered protection against aging and environmental stressors.
Anti-Ageing & Hyperpigmentation Treatments
When it comes to anti-aging and hyperpigmentation treatments, there are a number of well established players. However, glutathione still holds its own when compared with the most popular ingredients for skin ageing and hyperpigmentation:
- Retinoids: Retinol and stronger forms like Tretinoin, are the hold standard in topical anti-ageing skincare. They are effective in promoting skin renewal, treating acne and reducing hyperpigmentation. Whilst they leave skin clearer, smoother, brighter and younger looking they may cause irritation. Glutathione offers a gentler approach to anti-ageing and hence may be more suitable for sensitive skin. Better still, you can use both together.
- Exfoliating acids: Alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids remove dead skin cells which unclogs pores giving a smoother and brighter complexion. They do not provide the pigment suppression and antioxidant benefits of glutathione which is also gentler than exfoliating acids. However, you can use both of these in your skincare routine to benefit from their different mechanisms of action.
- Kojic Acid: This is a melanin inhibitor and effective in treating hyperpigmentation. Glutathione acts similarly to Kojic acid but with a lower risk of irritation so may be better for sensitive skin.
- Hydroquinone: The gold standard in hyperpigmentation treatment, hydroquinone is a prescription only medicine that suppresses pigment production. However, it carries risks like irritation and ochronosis with prolonged use. Glutathione provides a safer, gentler and slower alternative. You can also use it for maintenance after completing hydroquinone treatment.
- Arbutin: This is a milder pigment inhibitor to hydroquinone. You can use glutathione alongside it to enhance arbutin’s efficacy whilst adding antioxidative benefits.
- Tranexamic Acid: The biggest benefit of tranexamic acid is that it treats melasma with fewer side effects than other pigment suppressors. You can use glutathione alongside tranexamic acid to complement its actions and improve overall skin health and reducing oxidative stress.
Potential Risks, Side Effects and Controversies
Glutathione, while celebrated for its skin benefits, is not without potential risks and controversies. The most controversial form is injectable glutathione. Its main use is for skin lightening or whitening. This treatment raises a number of ethical concerns routed around the perpetuation of colourism and racist beauty standards. Additionally, these injections can pose serious risks such as allergic reactions, potential kidney and liver dysfunction, and infection. The use of glutathione, especially in injectable form, has been subject to scrutiny and regulation in several countries. This is due to these safety concerns and the broader implications of its use for skin whitening.
Oral glutathione supplements, though generally safer, may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and, in rare cases, allergic reactions. The effectiveness and absorption of oral supplements are also subjects of ongoing scientific debate. On the other hand, topical glutathione is generally the safest and least problematic option if used correctly.
The Best Way To Use Glutathione In Your Skincare Routine
Adding glutathione into your skincare routine can help you achieve radiant, youthful and healthy skin. However, it’s vital to use it correctly for the best results. We only recommend using topical glutathione as it is safer and also widely available. Below are our top tips for adding glutathione to your skincare routine:
- Preparation: The best way to use glutathione is in the form of serums or creams.
- Step: It’s best to apply it after cleansing and toning your skin. This allows the skin to absorb it more effectively.
- Timing: Given its antioxidant properties, its best to use it in your morning routine to help combat the oxidative stress your skin faces during the day.
- Sunscreen: Always use a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day even if its grey or you are indoors. You should do this anyway but especially when using glutathione and other pigment suppressors to reduce the risk of skin damage and rebound hyperpigmentation.
- Layering: Combining it with other antioxidants like vitamins C and E can amplify glutathione’s benefits. You can use these in separate products or find serums or creams that combine them. You can also use glutathione alongside retinoids and other pigment suppressors. In this case its best to use glutathione in the mornings and these products in the evenings.
As always, patch test any new skincare products before using to check for allergies. Also, if you have a specific or stubborn skin concern or any skin conditions, consult with a healthcare provider first to check which treatment is best for you.
Despite controversies and debates around risks, topical glutathione can play a unique and important role in anti-ageing skincare. It provides unparalleled antioxidant protection which helps produce brighter and younger looking skin. You can also maximise glutathione’s effectiveness is amplified when used in conjunction with other skin rejuvenating skincare ingredients including other antioxidants, retinoids and skin brightening agents. Just remember that nothing works over night and everyone’s skin is different.So, the best treatment for you is one addresses your individual skin needs and goals.
At City Skin clinic, we are devotees of personalised skincare. Through our online skin clinic, our doctors offer safe and effective treatments like Tretinoin and Hydroquinone. We treat skin conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, melasma and skin ageing. To start your personalised skincare plan, book a virtual video consultation or use our online consultation form. The journey towards great skin starts here.