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Exp Dermatol. 2012 Feb;21(2):140-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2011.01415.x. Epub 2011 Dec 6.

Modulation of skin pigmentation by the tetrapeptide PKEK: in vitro and in vivo evidence for skin whitening effects.

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IUF-Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine, Düsseldorf, Germany.


Uneven skin pigmentation is a significant cosmetic concern, and the identification of topically applicable molecules to address this issue is of general interest. We report that the tetrapeptide PKEK (Pro-Lys-Glu-Lys) can exert skin whitening effects based on one in vitro and four double-blinded vehicle-controlled in vivo studies. (i) Treatment of human keratinocytes with PKEK significantly reduced UVB-stimulated mRNA expression of interleukin (IL)-6, IL-8 and TNF-α and, most importantly, proopiomelanocorticotropin (POMC), i.e. a gene encoding the pigmentation-inducing soluble mediator α- (α-MSH). (ii) PKEK treatment significantly inhibited UVB-induced upregulation of genes encoding for IL-1α, IL-6, IL-8, TNF-α as well as POMC and tyrosinase in 10 healthy volunteers pretreated with PKEK for 4 weeks once daily. (iii) In a study enrolling 39 Caucasian women, facial pigment spots significantly faded after 6 weeks when PKEK was combined with the skin whitener sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP), whereas PKEK or SAP alone led to less pronounced fading of the pigment spots. (iv) Addition of PKEK enhanced the skin whitening potency of a SAP-containing preparation if applied for 8 weeks to the back of hands of 19 Caucasians. (v) 27 Japanese women were treated on their faces twice daily with an SAP only or a PKEK+SAP-containing formulation for 8 weeks. Application of PKEK+SAP significantly reduced skin pigmentation by 26% and by 18% according to SCINEXA score. We demonstrate that PKEK has the capacity to reduce UVB-induced skin pigmentation and may be suited to serve as a skin tone-modulating agent in cosmetic products.

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