It all started with a dream. Mike Einziger, lead guitarist for rock band Incubus, was on tour and jet-lagged when he drifted off to sleep. In the haze of zzz's, he dreamed someone beat him to the punch to introduce the world to malassezin, a relatively unknown molecule with untapped potential in skin care.
Actually, let's rewind. It all started with a discovery, and then a dream. The discovery came in the form of lightened patches of skin on the back of Ann Marie Einziger, master violinist and Mike's wife. Curious, as anyone with a new unfamiliar skin mark might be, she began asking questions: What is causing this hypopigmentation? Why doesn't it darken with sun exposure? Is it dangerous?
The short answer is no, it's not harmful, and, well, the rest is complicated. Ann Marie quickly learned her white spots were a byproduct of the common skin condition tinea versicolor, which stems from a naturally occurring yeast that grows in the microbiome called malassezia furfur. The latter stops the skin from producing melanin, but otherwise, little else was known of its cosmetic capabilities.
As self-proclaimed nerds, and endlessly fascinated by the probability that revelation A could lead to benefit B, the natural next step was to head to the lab for answers. Gearing up to launch biotech company Versicolor Technologies to assist in their research, they hired a team of scientists and got to work.
After six-plus years of probing and clinical trials, they finally confirmed: the novel malassezin succeeded in fading hyperpigmentation and dark spots. It was a game-changing innovation — and perhaps a harmonious new addition to the world of skin-care ingredients. Jolted awake with a new sense of urgency, they decided it was time to bottle it for the very first time in a tube of Mother Science Molecular Hero Serum ($89) using biomimetic technology.
And thus, an unexpected venture into the beauty world for Mike and Ann Marie went from dream to reality.
It is peculiar, two seemingly unassuming beauty entrepreneurs uncovering an obscure compound in the skin-care space, but the baseline interest and smarts were there from the get. The two initially met at Harvard, where Mike was studying the history of science; Ann Marie double-majored in biology and music at the University of Virginia, later teaching physics and chemistry. Deep dives into academic literature lit up their prefrontal cortexes like a teenager's learning choreography for TikTok might.
Which is a good thing, considering there was decades' worth of academic literature on malassezia furfur to study up on. "No one had looked into it from a cosmetics standpoint," Ann Marie says, "but we found it fascinating that this yeast could inhibit the cells that produce melanin and wondered if that meant it could also be used to treat hyperpigmentation on the skin."
The hypothesis was there. Now, all they needed was proof it worked.
Under Versicolor Technologies, the team of consulting scientists, chemists, and dermatologists, including Pearl Grimes, MD, who has specialised in pigmentation conditions for 40 years, conducted a myriad of tests. First, they did lab-based in-vitro studies — or studies not performed on human skin — with promising results. Some advised they stop there.
"We were told by a lot of scientists early on to not open Pandora's box, because you don't know what you're going to find," Mike says. "We just thought, 'Isn't that exactly why we should open it?'"
Because of the compound's novel nature, this meant they needed to go beyond the "standard battery of safety tests" to establish safety before commercializing it, he says. They conducted two clinical trials published in the Journal of the Academy of American Dermatology and the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
"Through all of our data, we found that malassezin visibly fades hyperpigmentation in three ways: reducing excess melanin production, decreasing melanin transport to the upper layers of skin, and minimizing melanin transfer to the keratinocyte skin cells," Dr. Grimes says.
"We were told early on to not open Pandora's box, because you don't know what you're going to find. We just thought, 'Isn't that exactly why we should open it?'"
Multiple unaffiliated dermatologists and cosmetic chemists we reached out to for this story confirmed the results are impressive. Why no other company has explored malassezin's potential in skin care before this, then, is unclear. Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of Beautystat, suspects the investment it takes to validate new ingredients might be to blame. Conducting clinical studies is expensive, after all, and it's easier to rely on data that already exists around other brightening ingredients, like hydroquinone, kojic acid, and vitamin C.
Plus, there's always the possibility of "one bad test result and the whole venture can instantly go away," Mike says.
Nonetheless, they continued — somehow knowing they were on the verge of something big.
Malassezin: What Are the Skin Benefits?
Any dermatologist worth their weight in face cream will tell you: pigmentation disorders are one of the most notoriously difficult to treat, commonly impacting those with more melanin in their skin. There are several reasons.
"It typically involves the deeper layers of the skin, so patience and consistency even with a good treatment plan are needed to see meaningful results," says dermatologist Kunal Malik, MD. "UV exposure will make hyperpigmentation worse and more stubborn, so it requires diligent sun protection to treat, which plays into the social aspect of treatment challenges as some patients may not be able to avoid being outdoors. Most of the difficulty I see with treating hyperpigmentation is patient reluctance to use certain agents that may be irritating, too slow to work, or have other side effects such as paradoxical darkening with prolonged use."
As Robinson noted, typical brightening ingredients you'll see over the counter include vitamin C, kojic acid, and tranexamic acid (or TXA). All of these are tyrosinase inhibitors, which means they reduce the enzyme tyrosinase from overproducing pigment in the skin. They are proven to be effective, hence why you'll see any number of combinations in most skin-care serums on the market. Similarly, hydroquinone — which dermatologist Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD, FAAD, describes as the "gold standard for hyperpigmentation" — also falls under this category, but "since it's been removed from OTC options, there is a need for better over-the-counter solutions," he says.
Malassezin, on the other hand, works within the upper layers of the skin. It blocks the cells that produce melanin, called melanocytes, like a bouncer at a Vegas nightclub. Its gentle nature means it won't contribute to flare-ups or further inflammation, either, doing damage control on existing spots better than Joe Jonas's publicist.
"In our work, we have indeed been able to document its benefit in brightening dark patches for melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and dark patches related to sun-damaged skin," Dr. Grimes says. "We also observed durability, in that patients' improvement persisted for a period of time after discontinuing the use of the serum."
Not only that, but "malassezin is a 10 times more powerful antioxidant than vitamin C that also works to improve the skin moisture barrier," Dr. Grimes says, adding that the team are currently investigating how it can be used in combination with other active ingredients.
Dr. Malik says that "while there are no head-to-head comparisons of malassezin with other agents such as retinoids or hydroquinone-based products," the future based on the current data is looking bright. "It also does not immediately have any concerning side effects, though further studies are needed to clarify."
The ingredient is still in its early stages of understanding, competing with years' worth of data in competing compounds. Only time will tell how it performs on hyperpigmentation outside of a lab, in the real world. Still, to paraphrase the late innovator Thomas Edison: there's always a way to do something better. The ones willing to face the music will find it.