When you think of melatonin, odds are you think of sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that's naturally produced by your body to regulate your circadian rhythm (a.k.a. your sleep-wake cycle), and many people take melatonin supplements as a natural (and non-addictive) alternative to sleeping pills. But now, melatonin is being hyped as the next big thing in anti-aging, too.
How legit is this? We turned to Whitney Bowe, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, to get the scoop. Turns out that melatonin is made not just in your brain, but in certain skin cells as well–making the skin a site of melatonin production and activity, Bowe says. "Melatonin is able to suppress UV-induced damage to skin cells and works as an antioxidant, meaning it protects cellular DNA from free-radical damage," Bowe says. Considering that sun damage is the main cause of signs of aging (like wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots), melatonin sounds like a pretty impressive wrinkle fighter.
However, you can't expect these skin benefits just by popping a melatonin supplement before bedtime. That's because your body digests the melatonin pill, making it unable for the hormone to then resurface in your skin, says Bowe. But applying melatonin topically (say in a serum or cream) is likely to be more effective. "Studies show that melatonin penetrates into the outer layer of skin, reinforcing the skin’s capacity for repair, renewal and revitalization during the night," says Bowe. (And no, using it on your skin won't make you sleepy).
While there is a lot of potential with topical melatonin, there are also some drawbacks. "Melatonin activates your skin’s melanocytes–the cells that produce pigment," Bowe says. Translation: Using it on your skin might cause your skin to darken, or counteract any brightening products you're using. So if you're looking to even out your skin tone, treat age spots, or already suffer from hyperpigmentation, you might want to steer clear of using melatonin on your skin, says Bowe.
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She also stresses that while early research has been "promising" on the benefits of melatonin for the skin, she says that there's not enough out there to be totally conclusive. She does not currently recommend it for her patients, but adds: "That could certainly change as more studies are conducted!"
Bowe suggests using any product with melatonin before bed. That's because your natural melatonin levels increase at nightfall, and then peak in the middle of the night–so you'd be working with your body's natural rhythm. "Furthermore, since melatonin helps the skin repair and restore, and night time is when the skin focuses on these tasks, it makes most sense to apply it at night," she says. Bowe recommends doing a patch test first to ensure that it won't irritate your skin, and to keep an eye out for skin darkening due to the potential for hyperpigmentation.
If you're interested in incorporating melatonin into your skin-care routine, here are a few products to try:
Genetix Cellular Recovery Serum ($45, theorganiclifeblog.com)
Youth Corridor Ultimate Antioxidant C Boost Serum ($195, net-a-porter.com)
Dr. Dennis Gross Dark Spot Sun Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($42, nordstrom.com)