Skin of color is prone to hyperpigmentation, a type of discoloration that can be caused by UV exposure, changes in hormone levels, and inflammation. It is notoriously difficult to treat, and for decades hydroquinone was pretty much the only option to treat it.
But after over-the-counter sales of the controversial skin-lightening ingredient were banned in 2020 as part of the CARES Act, a superior active has taken its place as the go-to for fighting dark spots. Enter: cysteamine, which you are about to see much more.
What is cysteamine?
Cysteamine, an amino acid derivative present in all human tissues, works by reducing cysteine (another naturally occurring amino acid) in your body.
When you have too much cysteine, it can cause increased melanin synthesis, which leads to hyperpigmentation. It also leads to kidney and eye problems, and initially, cysteamine was being studied as a remedy for these concerns, but later found its way into pigment research.
“Their [discoloration-reducing abilities] they were discovered when scientists were studying it and working with goldfish, and they noticed that the black goldfish turned white,” says Mikki Bey Crawford, US vice president of Swiss-based skincare brand Cyspera. Now, she adds , “is widely known in the medical field for its role in reducing pigmentation while functioning as an antioxidant to protect against free radicals.”
Applied topically, cysteamine lightens the skin, but it is not a skin whitening ingredient. When used in low concentrations, it simply works to bring your skin back to its original tone and has been shown to be more effective than hydroquinone at getting the job done.
“Any time you use an ingredient that exfoliates or reduces melanin synthesis, you may see your skin tone become lighter,” says Rachel Roff, esthetician and founder of Urban Skin Rx skincare line. “But I always tell people, as long as it doesn’t get lighter than your breasts or your butt, those areas that don’t see the sun, it’s not discoloring you, it’s just bringing your skin tone back to the complexion before it has had years of sun damage.”
To use cysteamine topically, apply it to dry, unwashed skin once a day and let it sit for 15 minutes before washing it off with a mild cleanser. You can use it in the morning (after waking up but before washing your face) or at night (again, before washing your face). If you’re using it as part of your evening routine, it might seem completely strange to apply a treatment product on top of makeup, dirt, sweat, or sunscreen built up on your face during the day, but Roff says it’s totally fine. . Regardless of what time of day you apply it, you may feel a little tingling, which is normal.
As with any new ingredient you’re adding to your regimen, you’ll want to be careful when mixing cysteamine with other actives, especially if you have sensitive skin. “For the first week or two, just follow up with a moisturizer and sunscreen. After that first week or two, you can introduce your vitamin C serum or let’s say a light toner with AHA,” says Roff. If your skin doesn’t feel irritated or excessively dry after another two weeks, you can restart your other corrective treatments, such as retinol and glycolic acid.
If you’re taking any prescription treatments, talk to your dermatologist before trying cysteamine. “I probably wouldn’t use this with tretinoin or hydroquinone,” says Roff. She adds that if you’re taking hydroquinone from your dermatologist, there’s no need to use cysteamine as well.
The only disadvantage of the ingredient: it stinks. The scent is “a cross between sulfur and maybe hair perm,” says Roff. The description of his scent is apt, but thankfully, “it washes off when you wash your face,” he says. In the few cysteamine formulas I have tried, I have noticed that the scent is super strong after application, it dissipates during the drying process and then returns when I get my face wet. After washing the product with a cleanser (and washing my hands with soap and water), the smell is completely gone.
Cysteamine goes mainstream
Before this summer, there were only two OTC cysteamine products available: APC 5% Cysteamine Cream ($59) and Cyspera Intensive System ($285). But then, this month alone, we’ve seen two new offerings hit the market from Urban Skin Rx and Senté, and we’re willing to bet there will be one. whole much more to come.
Cyspera Intensive System — $285.00
Cyspera was the first to introduce topical cysteamine to the market in 2019 with its Intensive System, and earlier this year the brand revamped the formula to include a stronger concentration of the active.
“Cyspera’s new intensive system contains two key ingredients: cysteamine and isobionic amide,” says Crawford. “Isobionic amide is supercharged niacin, the strongest molecule in the vitamin B3 family. In this system, it is paired with [alpha-hydroxy acids] for better and faster results without any unpleasant smell. AHAs include lactic, lactobionic, glycolic, and citric acid. The intensive system also contains vitamin C, niacinamide, and the strongest retinol that work in conjunction with the complex to deliver faster results for healthy, beautiful skin.”
The first step in the system is a cysteamine mask, the second is an AHA face wash, and the third is a retinol moisturizer.
Urban Skin Rx Hypercorrect Intense Fading Cream — $48.00
Roff first learned about cysteamine three years ago at a Skin of Color Society meeting, where they were discussing Cyspera. “I tend to get a lot of my knowledge about advances in hyperpigmentation from that group specifically,” says Roff. So when hydroquinone was banned, he went the route of formulating a more affordable cysteamine product.
The brand’s Hypercorrect Intense Fading Cream, which launched this month, is made with 5 percent Cysteamine along with Niacinamide to boost hydration with Vitamin E to promote moisture retention and smooth dehydrated skin.
Learn more about managing hyperpigmentation:
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