TO OVERCOME the insecurity of being the only exception in a relatively fair-skinned family, Cheska (not her real name), a third year student from the Faculty of Pharmacy, experimented with different brands of popular whitening products.

Dissatisfied with the results, her last resort was glutathione.

With its increased popularity thanks to endorsements from celebrities and politicians, glutathione has become one of the most popular choices for people who want to have fairer skin, like Cheska.

But questions over its effectiveness recently called the attention of experts from the Philippine Dermatology Society, who warned the public in a position paper released this month of the “fallacies” surrounding glutathione.

“The release of our position paper on glutathione is part of our campaign to protect consumers from false claims of some distributors in the market,” said Dr. Arnelfa Paliza, head of the dermatology department of the UST Hospital and dermatology society president.

Although studies have been performed to affirm its skin-whitening properties, oral glutathione’s potency remains questionable due to the lack of randomized clinical trials, which involve randomly chosen patients to compare the effectiveness of different treatments, the society said.

One example cited by the position paper is a study conducted by Clarissa Villarama of the University of the Philippines and Howard Maibach of the University of California, published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in 2005. The study claims that glutathione may lighten a person’s complexion by inhibiting melanin, the pigment responsible for the brown color of the skin. This process converts melanin to phaeomelanin, a lighter form of the pigment.

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“What do exist are testimonials of oral glutathione’s effectiveness from its users, which are considered weak pieces of evidence as compared to scientifically validated clinical trials,” Paliza said.

Moreover, the society claims that not only is oral glutathione questionable in terms of the quality of studies seeking to prove its potency, there are also uncertainties that arise in terms of its methods of administration.

“The absence of changes in blood glutathione levels indicates that oral glutathione has a low bioavailability,” Paliza said. “Thus, even if it is ingested, there is no guarantee that desired effects will be achieved.”

Dark to light

Glutathione is a compound composed of three amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, namely glutamine, glycine, and cysteine. Synthesized by the body through the liver, it aids in metabolism and serves as an antioxidant.

Synthetically, it is commercially available as a whitening, skin rejuvenating, and anti-aging agent usually in the form of soaps, tablets, and fluids that are injected to the veins.

Although considered doubtful as a skin whitener, glutathione is an effective antioxidant, the dermatology society said.

Glutathione sequesters free radicals and harmful oxygen chemicals, forming soluble compounds that are excreted through urine.

If glutathione levels found inside the cells are insufficient, it may pose risks for cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Whiter replacement

Paliza revealed that less expensive but equally efficient substitutes, which have similar action to that of glutathione’s, are available in the market.

The viable alternatives to glutathione are vitamin C, food, and nutritional compounds–methionine, glutamine, whey protein, and alpha-lipoic acid.

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Researchers from the Montreal General Hospital and McGill University in Canada found that whey protein can be an alternative to oral glutathione in a study in 1993 on the effect of whey proteins on the blood glutathione level of AIDS patients. After three months of administration, blood glutathione levels of patients went up by 70 percent.

The society said consumers should be critical enough to sort out distributors who claim that glutathione is an effective skin whitener. The society strongly stands on the position that no scientific evidence has yet to prove oral glutathione’s effectiveness as a skin whitener. It also reminded patients that intravenous forms of glutathione are still regarded as drugs and thus should only be administered and purchased upon the advice and supervision of a physician.

As for skin lightening substitutes, Paliza urged consumers to use sunblock.

“For now, it is the safest product to use to lighten complexion,” she said.

Paliza advised consumers like Cheska, who still aspire to attain a porcelain-white complexion, that skin whitening can only go as far as restoring the person’s natural skin color.

“Anything lighter than the birth color will be less likely to occur because a person’s natural skin color is genetic. Altering the birth color means changing one’s DNA,” Paliza said. Alena Pias P. Bantolo

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