Treating Dark Spots Naturally: Silymarin Cream Versus Hydroquinone

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Melasma is a common skin condition causing brown or gray patches on the face, especially the cheeks, nose, forehead and upper lip. The chronic pigmentation often worsens with sun exposure.1 While topical hydroquinone cream is the standard treatment, its side effects have raised safety concerns. A recent study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology explored whether milk thistle-derived silymarin could offer similar dark spot improvement with fewer risks.

Understanding Melasma

Melasma mostly occurs in women during pregnancy or while taking oral contraceptives or hormone therapy.2 It seems tied to estrogen and progesterone fluctuations influencing melanocyte function.3 Sun damage, genetics, thyroid dysfunction and cosmetic skin irritation may also contribute to melasma's development.4

The facial pigmentation can cause significant distress over one's appearance. Topical bleaching agents like hydroquinone, kojic acid and vitamin C are often used alongside diligent sun protection to lighten melasma spots.5 Chemical peels and laser resurfacing offer more aggressive approaches.6 But recurrence is common once treatment stops.7

Hydroquinone Risks and Natural Alternatives  

While hydroquinone can fade dark patches when applied twice daily, side effects include redness, burning, dryness and skin thinning with long-term use.8 Ironically it may sometimes worsen pigmentation through postinflammatory hyperpigmentation processes.8 This has motivated research into gentler options.

Plant compounds like soy, liquorice, niacinamide and ellagic acid have exhibited efficacy and safety for melasma in past studies, primarily through inhibiting melanin production and inflammation in skin cells.9 Silymarin, a mix of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonolignans from milk thistle, also holds promise based on success lightening UV-induced hyperpigmentation and sunspots in trials.10 The current clinical study directly compared silymarin and hydroquinone head-to-head for melasma treatment over three months.

Comparison Trial Parameters and Outcomes

In the double-blind, split-face study design, 25 Thai patients applied 1.4% topical silymarin cream on one cheek and 2% hydroquinone on the other twice daily.11 Digital imaging measured skin color lightness at baseline and study conclusion. Participants and researchers also evaluated hyperpigmentation severity and treatment satisfaction.12

After three months, both creams statistically significantly increased cheek skin brightness by 15% on average relative to baseline. But only the hydroquinone side saw a significant 18% drop in melasma severity scores; the natural silymarin cream improved scores by a nonsignificant 7%.

However, patients rated both treatments equally excellent. Almost 74% graded silymarin good or excellent for reducing dark spots versus 70% for hydroquinone. But 29% experienced skin irritation symptoms from hydroquinone like redness, dryness or heat compared to just 8% from silymarin.13

Implications for Integrative Melasma Therapy

This controlled trial adds clinical evidence that topical silymarin can naturally lighten stubborn melasma spots similarly to gold standard hydroquinone but with fewer side effects. Silymarin's antioxidant flavonolignans likely inhibit melanin production in skin cells to reduce hyperpigmentation, while its anti-inflammatory properties may target related inflammation contributing to melasma chronicity.14

For integrative practitioners, 1.4% silymarin cream could offer a gentler first-line or adjunctive treatment before trying riskier bleaching agents, especially in sensitive skin types prone to irritation, burning or redness from standard therapies. Checking liver function is also wise during oral silymarin supplementation to lighten skin since high doses may cause mild liver enzyme elevations.15

However, hydroquinone performed marginally better for reducing measured melasma severity in this trial. Using the two therapies sequentially may leverage both efficacy and safety. Patients could apply natural silymarin cream daily for several months then transition to short-term hydroquinone until optimal lightening emerges, avoiding longer exposure to potential toxicity. Dermatology collaboration helps personalize and monitor integrated skincare regimens.

While more comparisons on larger, diverse populations are valuable, this head-to-head study indicates the promising utility of nature-derived silymarin for gently easing melasma's dark spots without harsher tradeoffs standard bleaching creams incur. Milk thistle's "white spot agent" shows promise as a safe, effective, and time-tested herbal intervention that as long as there are more people aware of it as an option may eventually give conventional approaches a run for their money. 

How else might Milk Thistle help you? Find out by visiting the GreenMedInfo database on the subject. 


1. Pérez-Bernal A, Muñoz-Pérez MA, Camacho F. Management of facial hyperpigmentation. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000;1(5):261-268. doi:10.2165/00128071-200001050-00001

2. Leyden JJ, Sheridan PJ, Miller BH. Melasma: treatment with topical binoxamine versus 4% hydroquinone. Cutis. 1979;23(5):597-600. PMID: 42221

3. Brenner M, Hearing VJ. The protective role of melanin against UV damage in human skin. Photochem Photobiol. 2008;84(3):539-549. doi:10.1111/j.1751-1097.2007.00226.x

4. Halder RM, Grimes PE, McLaurin CI, Kress MA, Kenney JA Jr. Incidence of common dermatoses in a predominantly black dermatologic practice. Cutis. 1983;32(4):388-390. PMID: 6226064

5. Vashi NA, de Castro Maymone MB, Kundu RV. Facial hyperpigmentation: causes and treatment. Br J Dermatol. 2016;175(5):966-974. doi:10.1111/bjd.14697

6. Sarkar R, Garg V, Arora P, Sethi S, Gautam RK. Lasers for treatment of melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2013;6(3):130-140. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.117747

7. Pérez-Bernal A, Muñoz-Pérez MA, Camacho F. Management of facial hyperpigmentation. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000;1(5):261-268. doi:10.2165/00128071-200001050-00001

8. Jutley G, Rajaratnam R, Halpern J, Salim A, Emmett C. Systematic review of randomized controlled trials on interventions for melasma: an abridged Cochrane review. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;70(2):369-373. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2013.07.012

9. Chandramohan D, Alajlan A, AlMutairi S, et al. Natural Compounds for the Treatment of Melasma, a Systematic Review. Cosmetics. 2021;8(2):37. Published 2021 May 19. doi:10.3390/cosmetics8020037

10. Offord EA, Marenus KD, Chang JI, et al. Photoprotective potential of lycopene, beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C and carnosic acid in UVA-irradiated human skin fibroblasts. Free Radic Biol Med. 2002;32(12):1293-1303. doi:10.1016/s0891-5849(02)00867-x

11. Wattanakrai P, Nimmannitya K. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Split-Face Study of Topical Silymarin vs 2% Hydroquinone Cream in Melasmas. J Drugs Dermatol. 2022;21(12):1304-1310.

12. Wattanakrai P, Nimmannitya K. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Split-Face Study of Topical Silymarin vs 2% Hydroquinone Cream in Melasmas. J Drugs Dermatol. 2022;21(12):1304-1310.

13. Wattanakrai P, Nimmannitya K. A Randomized, Double-Blind, Split-Face Study of Topical Silymarin vs 2% Hydroquinone Cream in Melasmas. J Drugs Dermatol. 2022;21(12):1304-1310.

14. Baxter RA. Anti-aging properties of resveratrol: review and report of a potent new antioxidant skin care formulation. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2008;7(1):2-7. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2008.00354.x

15. Schrieber SJ, Wen Z, Vourvahis M, et al. The pharmacokinetics of silymarin is altered in patients with hepatitis C virus and nonalcoholic Fatty liver disease and correlates with plasma caspase-3/7 activity. Drug Metab Dispos. 2008;36(9):1909-1916. doi:10.1124/dmd.107.019604

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.

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