Depilatory chemical thioglycolate affects hair cuticle and cortex, degrades epidermal cornified envelopes and induces proliferation and differentiation responses in keratinocytes

Exp Dermatol. 2019 Jan;28(1):76-79. doi: 10.1111/exd.13838.


Thioglycolate is a potent depilatory agent. In addition, it has been proposed to be useful as a penetration enhancer for transepidermal drug delivery. However, the effects on hair structure and stress responses it elicits in epidermal keratinocytes have not been fully characterised. We have used label-free confocal and fluorescence lifetime imaging supported by electron microscopy to demonstrate how thioglycolate damages hair cuticle cells by generating breakages along the endocuticle and leading to swelling of cortex cells. Maleimide staining of free SH-groups and a decrease in the average fluorescence lifetime of endogenous fluorophores demonstrate a specific change in protein structure in both hair cuticle and cortex. We found that the thioglycolate damages cornified envelopes isolated from the stratum corneum of the epidermis. However, thioglycolate-treated epidermal equivalent cultures recover within 48 hours, which highlights the reversibility of the damage. HaCaT keratinocytes respond to thioglycolate by increased proliferation, onset of differentiation and expression of the chaperone protein Hsp 70, but not Hsp 27. Up-regulation of involucrin can be blocked by an application of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) inhibitor, but the up-regulation of Hsp 70 takes place regardless of the presence of the JNK inhibitor.

Keywords: fluorescence lifetime imaging; hair; keratinocyte differentiation; label-free imaging; stress signalling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects*
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects*
  • Dermatologic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • HSP27 Heat-Shock Proteins / metabolism
  • HSP70 Heat-Shock Proteins / metabolism
  • Hair / diagnostic imaging
  • Hair / drug effects*
  • Hair / ultrastructure
  • Hair Removal
  • Humans
  • JNK Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Keratinocytes / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Protein Precursors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Protein Precursors / metabolism
  • Thioglycolates / pharmacology*


  • Dermatologic Agents
  • HSP27 Heat-Shock Proteins
  • HSP70 Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Precursors
  • Thioglycolates
  • involucrin
  • JNK Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases