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Glutathione Glutathione (GSH) is a newly-sold product for skin depigmentation, but some of its uses and modes of administration can make it highly dangerous to the health of its users.

Glutathione is an antioxidant which is produced by our body, and which is mainly composed of three amino acids — glycine, glutamate and cysteine — which the body keeps together. As is the case for any antioxidant, glutathione, also known as GSH, prevents damage to cells by protecting them against free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals. This agent was first discovered in the 1920’s in the UK, for its oxidation-reduction characteristics, and is still to this day widely used as an antioxidant for many medical needs.

Historically, GSH has been administered orally and in relatively small dosages to patients needing antioxidation help in various medical treatments, but only recently has GSH been identified as a skin lightening agent : it has been established that extra GSH intake interferes with the process of melanogenesis, by reducing the skin pigmentation levels, which causes our skin to lighten. It is worth noting that this particular role of GSH as a skin whitener was discovered a side effect of its antioxidant properties, and that to achieve skin lightening, large doses of GSH had to be administered to patients, mostly by intramuscular and/or intravenous routes.

Over the past few years, health spas have been suggesting GSH injections, and such practices have been raising some eyebrows: the sanitary conditions under which such injections are carried out and the lack of medical oversight have triggered reactions from the medical and dermo-cosmetic sectors. Worse yet, the absence of control of injection dosage and frequency have led some medical practitioners and authorities in different parts of the world to raise some questions regarding the dangers of such a product on the market for skin lightening purposes.

Several dermatology experts have seriously questioned the use of GSH for skin lightening purposes and one of them, Pr. Kombaté Koussake, of the University Hospital in Lomé, TOGO, a central African state, has expressed the true risks patients run by taking regular GSH injections. To have a skin lightening effect, large doses of GSH are injected, and the danger for patients’ health is immediate and real : complications are inevitable and very serious. Glutathione triggers such complications as renal failure, leading to lifetime dialysis. Other complications can include some types of severe dermatitises such as Steven Johnson syndrome, which shows a painful red or purplish rash developing on the skin, then the top layer of the skin dies and sheds as if one peeled a potato. Also, some cases of blindness, stomach and/or vaginal atresia have been reported. Ultimately, repetitive high doses of injected GSH can disturb patients’ DNA and some skin cells can turn carcinogenic, which can lead to skin cancer.

Beyond the observed complications however, one of the main issues regarding glutathione supplementation for skin lightening purposes is that no extensive study has been conducted on GSH and its long-term effects yet, mostly because GSH hasn’t been used as a skin whitening agent for long enough with patients. What’s more, the GSH-based treatments currently used in the US are produced for a large part in Asia, and the production environments and their control do not so far guarantee product safety and reliability. The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has recently issued a warning regarding the purchase and use of GSH ; one of the head pharmacists at FDA recently claimed that “these products pose a potentially significant safety risk to consumers. You’re essentially injecting an unknown substance into your body—you don’t know what it contains or how it was made”.

Such reactions and warning should make any sensible skin lightening patient very cautious about using glutathione in injectable doses, and the best possible attitude is to steer away from it in the injectable form altogether until further studies are conducted on GSH.

Incidentally, an Italian pharmaceutical company is currently carrying out phase-III tests on a new way of administering GSH, that is, in sublingual form. In this case, GSH is absorbed by the body and bypasses the gastrointestinal system, which is the usual common route for most GSH-based treatments beyond injectable administration : once the test phase is over, the study of this new method of administration should better inform the medical community on the potential of glutathione for skin-lightening purposes.

As a rule of thumb, and until such testing brings conclusive results, it can only be recommended to opt for basic skin protection measures, such as choosing a quality and high-grade skin protection sunscreen, or even undergo conventional skin peeling techniques for those patients who wish to have their skin lightened. In the light of some new products coming out on the market which sometimes have led to major health scandals, patients should remain extremely cautious and fully avoid using glutathione for their skin.