What Is the Main Idea?

There is anecdotal evidence that bathing in the Blue Lagoon near Grindavik, Iceland, might reduce uneven skin pigmentation. The authors of the research article “Blue Lagoon Algae Improve Uneven Skin Pigmentation: Results from in vitro Studies and from a Monocentric, Randomized, Double-Blind, Vehicle-Controlled, Split-Face Study”, published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, aimed to scientifically validate these reports.

What Else Can You Learn?

You can learn about how skin pigmentation is determined and what affects it over a person’s lifetime. You can learn about the scientific study techniques used when testing treatments on humans.

Bathing in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

The Blue Lagoon is a man-made geothermal outdoor pool near Grindavik, Iceland. Constructed as a cooling basin for a nearby geothermal power plant, about 35% of the lagoon water is warm freshwater and the remaining 65% is seawater. Soon after the power plant was opened in 1976, lake bathers with a skin condition called psoriasis reported that the water was helping their symptoms. These observations have since been confirmed in clinical studies and it is now generally accepted that bathing in the Blue Lagoon is beneficial for people with psoriasis.

Why Does Bathing in the Blue Lagoon Help Skin Problems?

The lake has a high silica content, a moderate temperature of 37 °C, a salinity (saltiness) of 2.7%, and a unique geothermal microbial ecosystem. In summertime the lake is full of algae known as Cyanobacterium (C.) aponinum. Studies have shown that extracts prepared from the algae can regulate the biological functions of human skin cells such as epidermal keratinocytes (which form 90% of our top-layer skin cells) and dermal fibroblasts (found in a deeper skin layer). Both the silica from the lake and the algae extracts induced expression of genes relevant to the formation of the keratinocytes and fibroblasts.

It has also been proposed that the algae can have a positive impact on skin conditions caused by immune system problems. The algae can stimulate and regulate the immune system cells, which regulate inflammation responses and thus help an inflammatory skin condition.

Why Might Bathing in the Blue Lagoon Help Skin Pigmentation Specifically?

Skin pigmentation is determined by the amount of a substance in the skin called melanin. Melanin is produced by cells in the skin called melanocytes. The melanocytes then transfer the melanin to the keratinocytes (the cells in the top skin layer) where it is used to protect them from UV damage. Sun exposure and inflammation results in more production of melanin; thus, uneven skin pigmentation can develop in response to these damaging factors. Since studies have already shown that Blue Lagoon bathing can affect both keratinocytes and inflammation, it was a logical step for the researchers to explore the impact on skin pigmentation.

How Did the Researchers Test These Anecdotal Reports?

Effect of Algae Extract on Melanin Production

The researchers first tested the effect of algae extract on melanin production in a laboratory setting. They did this to see if it was worth carrying out a more complicated trial with humans.

To do this, they exposed human melanocyte cells to different strengths of the algae extract. They then tested the cell samples to see how much melanin-producing activity they had. The authors describe this experiment in detail, explaining the substances (known as markers) they were looking for and why presence of these markers indicate melanin-producing activity.

The researchers found that the algae significantly decreased the presence of these markers, which meant that the algae was likely having an effect on reducing the production of melanin in the cells.

Effects of the Blue Lagoon Water on Humans with Uneven Skin Pigmentation

The researchers conducted a clinical trial to assess the effects of the Blue Lagoon water on humans with uneven skin pigmentation. The algae extract and Blue Lagoon minerals were formed into a cream (active cream), and another cream was made without algae extract (inactive). 50 participants applied both creams, one on each side of the face, twice a day for 12 weeks (which is a common time period for cosmetic skin studies). The skin was assessed before, during and after the 12-week period using specialist imaging.

The authors describe the study as having many scientific features. These included it being single-center (in one location only), randomized (random allocation of participants and treatment), double-blind (neither the researchers nor the study subjects knew which cream was active or inactive; this was only available through encryption), vehicle-controlled (use of a cream to apply the algae) and intra-individual (both active and inactive cream tested on each participant).

Photographs and other images of the skin were taken and compared. A specialist assessment of the photos was carried out so that there was a quantitative (number-based) score for the comparisons.

What Were the Results of the Cream Trial?

There was a reduction of skin pigment spots where the active cream was applied, but not where the inactive cream was applied. In fact, the authors observed an increase of spots where the inactive cream was applied. They suggest that this means that the use of the active cream might also prevent the formation of new pigment spots.

Should I Book a Holiday to the Blue Lagoon If I Have Skin Pigmentation?

Although there is a Blue Lagoon spa resort which you can enjoy for relaxation, there are several reasons to be cautious about these results and thus not get your hopes up for an effect on uneven skin pigmentation.

  • Firstly, the authors point out that the study had inclusion criteria meaning that it was carried out on mainly women aged older than 60 years with either East Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Korean) or Caucasian background. Therefore, the results may not be relevant to those of other ages, sex, or skin classification.
  • Also, the authors did not include people taking medications that affect the skin, or those with current skin health problems (aside from the uneven pigmentation).
  • Finally, since the study period was 12 weeks, it is not possible to determine whether skin pigmentation may change as a result of the yearly seasons. The authors state that more studies are required.

Note: This post is based on an article that is not open-access; i.e., only the abstract is freely available. Furthermore, some of the authors of this paper make a declaration about funding, consultancy work, and being employed by a company conducting research. It is normal for authors to declare this in case it might be perceived as a conflict of interest.

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