Some might mistake it for the pill we take to fall asleep, but the topical form of melatonin is an entirely different ball game, and industry professionals say it’s all the rage.
Don’t Sleep on It
Thanks to melatonin, a hormone naturally made in the pineal gland that helps with the timing of our circadian rhythm, our bodies go into restoration mode—think cell rejuvenation and energy repletion—when the sun starts to set. While many people consume melatonin to induce sleep, industry professionals say that the super-hormone can also have magical effects when applied topically.
“There is evidence that applying melatonin to the skin can help with regulating antioxidant enzyme production for reparation and revitalization,” Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD says. Like the pills we take at night, the ingredient supports our natural repair functions and combats stress on the outside, but topical melatonin also does things that the ingestible form could never do.
It Protects From UV Light
“Melatonin in skin care acts like an antioxidant to protect from UV light,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. It does so by “activating the cellular synthesis needed to neutralize and block free radicals,” explains Dr. Shamban, who says that this process also allows the skin to combat damage from environmental factors. I
In a study performed by PubMed, scientists evaluated the effect of melatonin against UVR-induced damage and found that it had protective effects when applied before sun exposure versus after. According to New York dermatologist Dennis Gross, MD, “melatonin is often found in sunscreens because of how effective it is, alongside zinc oxide, at protecting the skin from UV wavelengths.”
It Works Well With Other Ingredients
While melatonin is effective on its own, Dr. Gross says it works even better in tandem, specifically with vitamins C and E. “These are two other great antioxidants that help protect against damaging free radicals, as well as harsh UVA and UVB rays. When combined, the efficacy of the formulation is higher than using the three ingredients individually.” For this reason, Dr. Gross included all three of these heavy-hitters—a trio he calls the Mela-C complex—in his Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare All-Physical Dark Spot Sun Defense Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($42). Together, they help prevent the formation of dark spots and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. While these antioxidants are strongest when used together, Dr. Shamban says there is evidence that melatonin may have stronger antioxidant effects than those from sources like vitamins C and E.
King, who explains that using the trio of melatonin, vitamin C and vitamin E is most beneficial during the day, says that ingesting the three ingredients together is also beneficial: “Melatonin supplements can help keep you healthy and assist with sleep, so make sure to take one nightly for a good night’s rest, and if you’re also applying the ingredient topically, your skin will look just as fresh as your body feels come morning.”
It Works in Its Own Way
While both forms of melatonin are regenerative, the topical version works differently, which Dr. Gross says is typical of ingredients that offer various benefits depending on the mode of application. According to Aurora Garre, medical affairs manager for ISDIN, when used at night, “ingestible melatonin is known primarily for its sleep-inducing action, but melatonin itself has many other functions. When used topically, it repairs oxidative damage suffered during the day by helping the skin’s barrier function.” Garre also considers melatonin a “remarkable anti-aging treatment, as it contributes to the regulation of collagen synthesis, stops cellular degradation and provides cellular protective action.”
Ahead, four melatonin-filled topical products we love for giving our skin a rest.
Good for all skin types and 100-percent vegan, this lightweight moisturizer utilizes a patented RestLab Complex to combat signs of aging as melatonin and retinol help regenerate skin cells.
The Eye Cream
ISDIN Vital Eyes ($95)
To reduce crow’s-feet brought on by UV light and oxidative stress, apply this melatonin, algae and caffeine-filled cream. After just a few seconds, the eye area looks more youthful, radiant and refreshed.
Topicals Faded ($36)
Fade the appearance of stubborn spots by applying this gel, which taps exfoliating kojic acid, free radical–fighting melatonin and stress-reducing azelaic acid to clean skin before moisturizing.