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L'Oréal Put 18 Years of Research Into a New Ingredient That Addresses Dark Spots

When it comes to targeting dark spots with skin care, a handful of ingredients — vitamin C, glycolic acid and niacinamide, especially — are regarded as the gold standards. They’ve been heavily researched and are generally tolerated well, so most new formulas are focused on putting these existing ingredients to use in innovative ways, rather than creating new treatments altogether.

But that’s not always the case. This month, La Roche-Posay, a subsidiary of L’Oréal, unveiled a breakthrough formula for pigmentary disorders using a patented molecule it’s been developing for the past 18 years: melasyl (me-la-sill), an ingredient the brand is incorporating into several new product launches.

We wondered: what goes into researching a legitimately innovative new ingredient like this, developing new products with it and bringing them to market? (Also: Does it work?) In hopes of finding out, Fashionista spent the day at L’Oréal USA’s Research and Innovation Center in Clark, New Jersey with the company’s Research and Innovation Team.

The Market Research

Clinical studies and surveys are the vital first step in bringing any new skin-care ingredient to market. Dr. Hawasatu Dumbuya, the Director of Clinical Research at La Roche-Posay, explains that the brand kicked off its study with two main objectives: “first, to determine the prevalence of pigmentary disorders worldwide, and second, we wanted to get a better understanding on the impact of pigmentary disorders in people’s lives.”

In order to do this, La Roche-Posay partnered with Ipsos, a global marketing company, to create an international study on pigmentary disorders. The brand conducted 48,000 interviews in 34 different countries between December 2022 and February 2023, capturing perspectives of individuals 18 and up.

“What we found was very striking,” says Dr. Dumbuya. “Overall, 50% of people worldwide were concerned with pigmentary disorders, including solar lentigo (sun spots), post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), melasma and vitiligo.” She notes that people of color were more likely to experience a pigmentary disorder, with the disorders being more prevalent in women.

The second goal was to understand how these pigmentary disorders affect quality of life, so the brand created a 10-question survey that scored from 0-30, from less impact to more impact. (“A score greater than 10 suggests that the condition has a significant impression on the patient’s life,” Dr. Dumbuya emphasizes.)

Out of roughly 22,000 individuals who were concerned with their pigmentary disorders, 46% of them said that having a pigmentary disorder moderately to severely impacted their quality of life. Amongst these respondents, all conditions had an underlying cause of localized, excessive pigmentation (a symptom of all the conditions I listed above: sun spots, PIH, melasma, etc.). La Roche-Posay went a step further and produced another survey with queries about what part of the respondents lives have been affected due to their pigmentation disorders, pointing out the stigma of these conditions, and how they may be affecting individuals’ mental health. The responses were telling: “Out of the 22,000 people, we saw that 45% of them felt that, at least sometimes, it was better to conceal or hide the visible parts of their affected skin,” Dr. Dumbuya says.

Other common responses illustrated the more personal, emotional impact of pigmentation issues: 30% of respondents said they’d refused direct contact with the public, and 22% said that they have been feeling less loved or appreciated by their loved ones, at least on occasion. Twenty-one percent said that, at least sometimes, they’ve felt discriminated against at work because of their pigmentary disorders. These sentiments are serious, and La Roche-Posay set out to change this, to advocate for patients with these pigmentary disorders and, most critically, to come up with a solution.

Photo: Courtesy of La Roche-Posay

The Molecular Research

Once a need is identified based on thorough consumer surveys and studies, finding an actionable molecule or ingredient that can help ease these burdens becomes the work of the advanced research team.

And so came the birth of melaysl. For this ingredient, it all started by answering the question,”Where does melanin, the underlying cause of excess pigmentation, come from?”

“Your skin has layers, cells and cellular components,” says Dr. Janet Wangari Olivero, AVP of advanced research at L’Oréal. “One of the most important cells in your skin are cells called melanocytes, which create melanin.” The goal: To find a molecule in the team’s bank of discoveries that could help scale back over-production of melanocytes due to the various pigmentation disorders identified in the team’s research.

Finding the Right Match: Melasyl

Throughout the rigorous testing process, the R&I team had to ensure that said molecule has the right balance of sustainability, effectiveness and, most importantly, safety. Out of the 100,000 molecules that were screened, the team found 23 that could work, and finally narrowed it down to the melasyl molecule, which struck the right combination.

The team tests new molecules and ingredients on reconstructed lab-grown human skin tissues to ensure the product is safe and effective before moving it to clinical trials. (You read that right — L’Oréal worked with Episkin to create lab grown human skin for testing purposes). Next came the question: Does melasyl reduce or change the levels of pigmentation when applied?

The answer: It sure seems so! “Compared to some of our other well-known cosmetic ingredients, we were able to show that melasyl actually changes the levels of melanin to reduce excess accumulation, which was the effect we were looking for,” says Dr. Olivero.

“We were able to show that Melasyl performed under a variety of tests with different controls. We did the clinical testing on all skin tones and types on the Fitzpatrick scale,” she adds.

Because melasyl was proving itself effective on a variety of skin tones with various pigmentation disorders, it became the golden ticket to two new products in the La Roche-Posay line: the Mela B3 Dark Spot Serum with Melasyl + Niacinamide and the Mela B3 UV Daily Moisturizer with Melasyl + Niacinamide.

Photo: Courtesy of La Roche-Posay

Photo: Courtesy of La Roche-Posay

Bringing Melasyl to Market

Testing on all skin tones is an especially significant pre-launch step. “People with skin of color have unique skin-care concerns, and I love that La Roche-Posay does research in this very population,” says Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a board-certified dermatologist and the Director of the Skin of Color Division for the University of Miami Department of Dermatology.

She considers the brand’s dark spot duo an effective formula that will help correct existing dark spots. The goal is to incorporate melasyl into your existing regimen, and use the duo in tandem with any other OTC or prescription medication you may be on. “I always say I like to attack pigment from every single direction,” she notes.

As far as application goes, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd recommends applying the serum and sunscreen in the morning all over the face, including areas you don’t necessarily have dark spots. A bonus: With a chemical formulation, the SPF is completely clear, ensuring that no white cast or residue will be left behind, even on dark skin tones.

Dr. Wollery-Lloyd is excited about the potential impact melasyl may have on how we are able to treat and correct pigmentation disorders, and its documented ability to do so in a diverse range of skin tones. The impact of an ingredient like this shouldn’t be underestimated, she adds: “It’s so difficult to live with a pigmentary disorder on the face, it really affects quality of life, self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s ok to be affected by this.”

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