If you’re living with vitiligo, you may have heard of various approaches that are purported to increase the melanin in your skin. By boosting melanin production, some sources say, you may be able to even out your skin pigmentation and improve vitiligo symptoms. But are any of these methods actually proven to work?
This article will cover what the research says about certain foods and supplements that are believed to help increase melanin levels, along with other medication and therapy options that have been shown to work.
Melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color, is produced by specialized cells known as melanocytes. Your skin makes three types of melanin — eumelanin, pheomelanin, and neuromelanin — to help protect your cells’ DNA from the sun’s harmful rays.
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease caused by your immune system attacking your melanocytes. Once the melanocytes are destroyed and can no longer make melanin, light or white patches begin forming on your skin.
Several well-studied topical treatments for vitiligo work by blocking your immune system from attacking your melanocytes. As a result, you have more melanocytes available to make melanin and add pigment back to your skin. These treatments don’t directly increase melanin production, but allowing melanocytes to recover from damage leads to more melanin in your skin. Although phototherapy does have a direct effect on melanin production, indirect methods, like the topical creams discussed below, may also result in a satisfactory skin change for many people.
Tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel) are topical calcineurin inhibitors that block the effects of immune cells known as T cells. Researchers believe that T cells are responsible for attacking melanocytes and causing the light or white patches of skin seen in people with vitiligo. Disrupting T-cell activity protects melanocytes so that they can continue making melanin.
Tacrolimus (an ointment) and pimecrolimus (a cream) are applied to affected areas once or twice daily. Each can be used to treat vitiligo on sensitive skin, including the eyelids, face, breasts, and genitals.
Your dermatologist may also prescribe a topical corticosteroid to help treat vitiligo. Corticosteroids are synthetic (laboratory-made) hormones that dampen inflammation. They help prevent immune system attacks so that more melanocytes can return, increasing melanin levels.
Small patches of skin affected by vitiligo can be treated with a highly concentrated corticosteroid cream. It’s important to note that corticosteroids can cause skin atrophy (thinning) if used at high concentrations for a long time. Be sure to follow your dermatologist’s directions on how to apply topical corticosteroids.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a topical Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor called Opzelura (a formulation of ruxolitinib) to treat vitiligo. Ruxolitinib keeps JAK proteins from sending signals that prompt the immune system to destroy melanocytes and create inflammation. By blocking these proteins and the immune system’s attack, ruxolitinib promotes normalization of melanin levels. Ruxolitinib is a cream applied twice daily to areas of skin affected by vitiligo.
You’ve probably noticed that after a day in the sun, your skin tans or gets darker. Sunlight triggers melanocytes to make more melanin, protecting your skin cells from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. However, if you have vitiligo, your dermatologist has likely told you to avoid direct sun exposure and tanning and to wear sunscreen with a high SPF to prevent burning of skin where there is no melanin.
In a controlled environment, UV light can actually help safely increase melanin levels in people with vitiligo. Known as phototherapy, this treatment uses specific types of UV light to both suppress the skin’s immune system and stimulate melanocytes to produce more melanin. The most common type of phototherapy used for vitiligo, narrowband UVB treatment, is often combined with other topical treatments to improve results.
If you’re interested in trying a natural way to raise the amount of melanin in your skin, you may wonder where to start. Doctors and researchers have studied different plant components for treating vitiligo, and one possible approach involves antioxidants. These substances help fight inflammation and cell damage, and they can be made in laboratories or found in plants. Antioxidants may help protect melanocytes by fighting oxidative stress such as from UV rays, boosting pigmentation and bringing back your skin’s color.
Examples of extracts and antioxidants used to treat vitiligo include:
Although these nutrients have beneficial properties, their effect is limited, and many treatment methods lack solid evidence supporting their effectiveness. However, including wholesome, antioxidant-rich foods in your diet, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, is always a good idea for skin health.
Antioxidants that are more widely used in clinical practice include ginkgo biloba, alpha-lipoic acid, and polypodium leucotomos extract. It’s important to note that the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements like it regulates drugs, so use caution when choosing natural products. Ask your doctor or dermatologist to recommend their preferred brand.
Ginkgo biloba extract is a widely used supplement made from the leaves of the ginkgo tree. The extract packs antioxidants known as flavonoids and terpenoids, which may help manage skin inflammation and vitiligo symptoms. These antioxidants help control free radicals, unstable molecules that can cause stress and damage to your cells.
Clinical trials have also found that ginkgo extracts may boost skin pigmentation in people with vitiligo. In one small study, participants who took a gingko biloba extract by mouth saw their symptoms improve significantly. The extract helped bring pigment back into white patches and slowed the spread of vitiligo symptoms to other parts of the body.
Your doctor or dermatologist may recommend taking ginkgo biloba extract. If so, ask whether you should consider using liquid extracts, tablets, or capsules.
Alpha-lipoic acid is another antioxidant researchers have studied in people with vitiligo. Your body makes its own alpha-lipoic acid, but eating a healthy diet pumps up your supply. Alpha-lipoic acid can be found naturally in:
Like ginkgo biloba, alpha-lipoic acid helps control free radicals that damage melanocytes. There’s also evidence that alpha-lipoic acid can boost levels of other antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, for even more protection.
Studies show that taking alpha-lipoic acid supplements along with using traditional vitiligo treatments, such as phototherapy or corticosteroids, can boost pigment in your skin. Doctors and researchers believe that alpha-lipoic acid may help these treatments work faster. Make sure to check in with your health care provider regarding which alpha-lipoic acid supplement they recommend for you.
Extracts from the tropical fern plant polypodium leucotomos — taken as supplements or applied as creams — have been studied for their protective effects on melanin. Researchers believe that this plant’s antioxidants, which have been found to help protect skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, may prevent DNA damage and treat inflammation that affects melanocytes.
With your doctor’s OK, you can combine polypodium leucotomos extracts with phototherapy to help treat vitiligo. Studies show that this combination significantly boosts skin pigmentation. Your doctor or dermatologist may have you take an oral supplement, along with using narrowband UVB treatment.
If you’re interested in learning about safe ways to increase the amount of melanin in your skin, talk with your doctor or dermatologist. Always consult your doctor before taking any vitamins, supplements, or other melanin-boosting treatments, which could interfere with your current medications. Your health care provider can help guide you to the safest, most effective treatment plan for your vitiligo.
MyVitiligoTeam is the social network and support group for people with vitiligo and their loved ones. On MyVitiligoTeam, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with vitiligo.
Have you tried any medications, phototherapy, or supplements to treat vitiligo? Did any of these approaches seem to increase your skin’s melanin? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.
In partnership with the Global Vitiligo Foundation, which strives to improve the quality of life for individuals with vitiligo through education, research, clinical care, and community support.