Experts Warn Against Intravenous Glutathione Treatments for Skin Lightening

The paradox of darker skinned individuals yearning for a lighter skin tone, and fair-skinned people yearning for a deep tan drives the demand for treatments such as intravenous glutathione. 

While primarily utilized in the Philippines, intravenous glutathione is gaining popularity in the United States, as evidenced by the amount of press it has recently received in relation to skin lightening.

This article takes a look at intravenous glutathione, including what it is and how it works, as well as the dangers and potential side effects.

We’ve gathered input from two Medical Doctors on this subject, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to provide you with as much information as possible so you are aware of the potential dangers.

Keep in mind that this article is not intended as medical advice. Before you undergo any type of intravenous procedure, it’s important to talk to your medical professional first.

What Is Glutathione and How Does It Work Intravenously?

Glutathione is a potent antioxidant and found naturally in the body, according to Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas.

“It is used to detoxify the blood by quenching free radicals,” Dr. Lain explained. “In addition, glutathione helps lighten skin by decreasing the activity of an enzyme responsible for making the pigment that darkens the skin.”

Glutathione is an antioxidant which has been used around the world for a number of indications, noted Dr. Seemal R. Desai, a board-certified dermatologist and president of the Skin of Color Society.

It has shown up more recently in other parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia, India and Korea, because of the so-called effects on skin lightening, Dr. Desai said.

“We know that in many cultures lighter skin is often times culturally associated with beauty,” Dr. Desai said. “Therefore, in these parts of the world, therefore patients seek treatments for skin lightening because they think that having a lighter complexion or skin tone will equate to more beauty, social stature, interpersonal relationship benefits, etc.”

Dermatologists oftentimes deal with pigmentary disorders and hyper-pigmented and hypo-pigmented skin diseases in patients of all skin types, but especially in patients with skin of color, noted Dr. Desai, who regularly posts skin tips, especially about the skin of color.

One example of that disease is melasma, and another example is post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation, which can occur due to acne, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and other conditions.

 “In these conditions, patients want evenness and more quality of their skin tone while achieving a reduction in the hyper-pigmentation,” Dr Desai said. “Because glutathione is an antioxidant it has been felt that this can be used to help lighten the skin tone by decreasing inflammation in the skin that could lead to an increase in pigment or melanin.”

The problem is that glutathione is metabolized and broken down very quickly in the G.I. tract. Therefore, by the time you were to ingest oral glutathione in a vitamin or supplement, the majority of it is not bioavailable to be absorbed into the bloodstream because it’s already been degraded in the G.I. tract, Dr. Desai explained.

“Therefore intravenous glutathione was developed so that the serum concentration of the product stays high and bypasses the metabolism in the G.I. tract,” Dr. Desai said. “Therefore it is given intravenously.”

Glutathione is very poorly absorbed into the bloodstream when taken orally as a pill, for example, hence the need for intravenous administration directly into a vein, Dr. Lain noted. The current use of intravenous glutathione is in a series of treatments, spaced at various intervals until the desired effect is achieved, and then a maintenance program is started.

“Intravenous glutathione offers certain advantages to other lightening treatments, such as creams, because it works on the entire body simultaneously, requires intermittent versus daily treatment, is easy, and has the perception of being safe,” Dr. Lain said.

Many people do not experience side effects from intravenous glutathione treatments, Dr. Lain noted. However, no large, long-term studies have been performed to support the safety and efficacy of intravenous glutathione, which we address in the next section.

What Are the Potential Side Effects of Intravenous Glutathione?

According to Dr. Lain, reported side effects include thyroid dysfunction, kidney damage possibly leading to dialysis, and skin rashes, some of which have been very severe. There are also risks involving the placement of an IV by inexperienced practitioners.

“For these reasons, the FDA has published a position paper on the use of IV glutathione for skin lightening, saying that it is ‘unsafe and may result in serious consequences,’” Dr. Lain warned.

“This is not an approved use of glutathione, and you are putting yourself at risk, some of which are known and certainly many that are unknown,” Dr. Lain said. “Numerous treatments are required, but the number of treatments and the dose of glutathione given in each treatment has not been examined.”

Injectable Skin Lightening Products: What You Should Know

Some consumers seeking to change their skin color are turning to injectable products marketed to whiten or lighten their complexion, according to a consumer report issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

These products are potentially unsafe and ineffective and might contain unknown harmful ingredients or contaminants. Therefore, the FDA has not approved any injectable drugs for skin whitening or lightening.

“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,” said In Kim, a pharmacist at the FDA.

Beyond the potential harm from the product itself, improper or unsafe injection practices may transmit disease, cause infection and result in serious injury.

Injectable Skin Lightening Products: Promises at a Price

Injectable skin whitening products often promise to lighten the skin, correct uneven skin tone, and clear up blemishes. Some products even claim to treat conditions, such as liver disorders and Parkinson’s disease.

These products are marketed for injection into a vein or muscle or under the skin and are sold online and in some retail outlets and health spas. Although the average consumer may not assume so, these products are unapproved new drugs.

“We have noticed a number of online companies marketing injectable products for skin whitening and are concerned that these products and their ingredients may cause serious harm to consumers,” Kim said.

The products contain ingredients that can include glutathione, vitamin C, collagen and even human placenta.

In September of 2014, U.S. Marshals seized various unapproved and improperly labeled drug products sold and distributed by Flawless Beauty LLC at the request of FDA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey. Earlier that year, Flawless Beauty LLC voluntarily recalled multiple unapproved drugs. Despite a recall, the company continued marketing and distributing unapproved drugs, which prompted federal authorities to seek further enforcement action.

The seized products include Relumins Advanced Glutathione kits and Tatiomax Glutathione Collagen Whitening kits.

“In general, consumers should be cautious of any product marketed online with exaggerated claims on safety and effectiveness,” Kim said, “they also should consult their health care practitioner before deciding to use any new product.”

The FDA has also expressed safety concerns about non-injectable over-the-counter skin bleaching products. Skin bleaching drug products containing ammoniated mercury are new drugs and are therefore required to go through the FDA-approval process for new drugs.

What Consumers Should Do If They Are Experiencing Side Effects

If you have used these injectable products and are experiencing side effects, consult a health care professional as soon as possible. You or your health care professional can also report an illness or injury you believe to be related to the use of these products by calling 800-FDA-1088 or visiting FDA online.

If you have questions about particular skin conditions, consult a health care professional. There are FDA-approved topical drug products to treat certain skin conditions, such as hyper-pigmentation, which causes the skin to darken, and melasma, which causes patches on the face.

Unlike the unapproved injectable skin whitening drug products, FDA-approved drugs have been determined by FDA to be safe and effective for their intended use. In addition, facilities where the approved products are made are generally subject to FDA-inspection and must comply with FDA regulations and good manufacturing practices.

Intravenous Glutathione Treatments: The Bottom Line

There have been no randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials showing the effect of glutathione in lightening the skin and for pigmentary disorders, Dr. Desai said.

“Therefore, I do not advocate for the use of this product in dermatologic treatment,” said Dr. Desai, further noting that IV administration does have risks such as infection, sepsis, irritation around the IV site, and other complications.

“There have been reports of even death from intravenous glutathione administration,” Dr. Desai said. “This trend of administering this product intravenously has been showing up more and more in the United States, and as a dermatologist who specializes in skin of color and pigmentary disorders, I get asked about it frequently.”

Dr. Desai advises his patients that he does not think this is a safe treatment: “I have not seen studies to support its benefit, and there could be adverse reactions.”

You are putting yourself at risk, and the level of risk is unknown, Dr. Lain warned.

“Some have such a strong motivation to achieve a lighter complexion that they will accept this risk-reward tradeoff,” Dr. Lain said. “But I would strongly advise considering whether your overall health is worth jeopardizing for a change in complexion.”

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Alicia Doyle

An award-winning journalist, Alicia Doyle has covered a range of topics, from crime to sports to special education. With an affinity for human interest stories, she has written thousands of articles about inspirational people, events and organizations that have a positive impact on the community and world at large.

Experts Warn Against Intravenous Glutathione Treatments for Skin Lightening