Melatonin in skin care products has been trending for the last year. Is it safe, what it does for your face, do you need it, and what need to know to make that decision?
Here is what you need to know about melatonin in skin care.
First, melatonin is a hormone that easily and efficiently penetrates into skin when applied in a skin care product. Melatonin is a small molecule – small enough to get through your skin’s sturdy barrier. Once melatonin is absorbed into the skin, blood levels of melatonin also rise.
Melatonin also readily penetrates skin cell nuclei (where DNA resides) and mitochondria (the cells power generator and regulator of many important cellular functions). It also penetrates deeply into the dermis where collagen loss leads to wrinkles and premature skin aging.
Melatonin’s super power for skin penetration comes from its affinity for lipid structures (we call this lipophilic properties) such as your skin’s barrier and cell membranes. When you apply a melatonin skin cream it gets into your skin and into your bloodstream.
The bottom line is that melatonin – a hormone – when added to skin care products easily gets into skin and your body.
How do you decide if this is something you want?
What is melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone, antioxidant and is also anti-inflammatory. It was originally discovered to be made by the brain’s pineal gland as a hormone that helps your body to regulate day/night circadian rhythms and seasonal biorhythms. It is produced by the pineal gland when you are in darkness and less light enters your eyes. Light entering your eyes will cause melatonin production to stop.
Melatonin does more than regulate sleep/wake circadian rhythms, it is also a potent antioxidant, and has anti-inflammatory function. The most important of these functions for skin is the antioxidant activity.
Melatonin works as a potent skin antioxidant via a cascade of events called the melatoninergic antioxidative system (MAS).
Melatonin's antioxidant activity is highly effective at neutralizing an extensive array of free radicals, helping to protect the skin from UV and environmental damage. It works by two mechanisms.
- The first antioxidant mechanism of melatonin in skin is by acting directly to neutralize free radicals. Melatonin also forms two other direct free radical neutralizing antioxidants when it breaks down, making it an even more potent and long-lasting antioxidant.
- Melatonin may also have a second indirect antioxidant function by turning on antioxidant enzymes at a gene level.
Is melatonin normally present in skin?
Melatonin synthesis in skin probably decreases with age and varies by skin pigment.
It is known that black skin has the highest concentration of melatonin. Serum melatonin levels decline with age. This has been correlated with increased skin aging. I could not find studies on skin melatonin levels correlated with age.
Melatonin in skin care products can help protect skin from UV sun damage
Melatonin protection of skin from UV damage has been studied for 20 years. Most studies were done on cell cultures in the lab, which are not directly relevant to whether melatonin will function the same way in your skin. Some clinical studies on humans have been done.
Scientific studies of melatonin containing skin cream may:
- help to reduce UV induced redness,
- augment sunscreen SPF, and
- fight free radical skin damage.
It is important to know that melatonin cream needs to be applied before UV exposure to provide benefits. That said, melatonin may benefit skin even better than other antioxidants such as vitamin C or E.
Do you get more skin benefit if you take melatonin supplements or apply melatonin cream?
Does taking oral melatonin supplements help your skin?
Oral melatonin does not get to skin in significant amounts due to what is called ‘first-pass degradation’ of melatonin by the liver. This means that after taking an oral supplement of melatonin, the liver quickly removes it. Injections of melatonin do significantly raise serum melatonin levels and have been associated with worrisome darkening of moles and freckles; experts do not recommend melatonin injections for safety reasons. Similarly, skin application of melatonin penetrates skin well and elevates blood levels of melatonin.
Because melatonin is readily absorbed by skin, topical application will increase melatonin levels in skin better than taking oral supplements but I still think we need more safety studies. - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
Are melatonin skin care products safe?
Melatonin is a hormone. Other hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and cortisone are well known and everyone knows that topical application of them can have both benefits and side effects.
I think caution is needed with melatonin until we have better studies on how to use it topically. - Dr. Bailey
The gap for melatonin in skin care is that there are not good studies guiding us regarding concentration or best practices. We know that it needs to be present on skin before sun exposure to reduce UV induced redness. We don’t know if that correlates with reduced UV damage or just redness.
Also, melatonin levels naturally rise at night during sleep and it has been used to help regulate sleep. So, would applying it during the day disrupt the sleep/wake cycle? Melatonin is well absorbed through skin and blood levels of melatonin have been shown to rise after topical application so it is reasonable to assume there may be some systemic impact on the sleep/wake cycle of circadian rhythms.
The bottom line with melatonin in skin care products:
Melatonin is readily absorbed into skin in very significant levels. It is a powerful antioxidant with the potential to protect skin from damage in important ways.
Melatonin is an intriguing skin care ingredient for powerful age fighting and skin protecting benefits. I would like to see good scientific studies looking at safety and side effects before recommending it. - Dr. Bailey
The current understanding we have of melatonin suggests that it may have significant benefits when used in a night cream with retinoids and during the day formulated in a mineral zinc oxide sunscreen.
I recommending waiting until more safety studies have been done on melatonin in skin care.
As a dermatologist, my ingredient preference for proven topical skin antioxidant benefits is:
- Green tea polyphenols as in my Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy used once or twice a day.
- Retinoids such as prescription tretinoin or professional levels of retinol as in my Retinol Night Cream. Retinoids are applied at night.
- Vitamin C which is available in serums. Many of my products also contain vitamin C and vitamin E.
Get all the best green tea antioxidants combined in a routine fortified with additional antioxidants in a Complete Skin Care Routine in my Complete Facial Skin Care Kit. Add Retinol Night Cream and you have powerful, compatible antioxidant infused skin care routine proven to fight skin aging.
Author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D. is a Board Certified dermatologist practicing dermatology since 1987. She has done well over 200,000 skin exams during her career and authors the longest running physician written skin health blog in the world.
“I love empowering people to take good care of their skin by educating them and putting the ‘self-care’ into their skin care so that they love the skin they’re in!” Dr. Bailey