What is Eflornithine?

Mary McMahon

Eflornithine is a medication effective against African trypanosomiasis and excessive facial hair growth. Experimental studies have also suggested the drug may be used in combination therapy for preventing the recurrence of colorectal polyps. Some brand names this medication is sold under include Ornidyl® and Vaniqa®. All formulations are available by prescription only.

Some facial creams can cause acne.
Some facial creams can cause acne.

This drug was developed in the 1970s. Researchers noted that eflornithine interfered with metabolic processes inside the parasites responsible for African trypanosomiasis, also known as “sleeping sickness.” When the drug is injected, it kills the parasites and is rapidly expressed from the body, before it has a chance to cause damage inside the body. Like many medications found to be effective in the treatment of diseases most commonly found in the developing world, eflornithine languished for several years without extensive development because there were concerns it would not be profitable.

This changed when the medication was found to be useful in the treatment of excess or unwanted facial hair. Eflornithine acts on enzymes involved in new hair growth, slowing the rate of hair growth and making it easier for people to control facial hair. The drug is administered topically twice a day. With the commercial development of eflornithine creams, drug companies also worked with humanitarian organizations to prepare injectable forms of the medication for the treatment of sleeping sickness in Africa.

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Eflornithine side effects vary, depending on how the medication is being used. Facial creams can cause acne, irritation, and ingrown hairs. Injectable forms are associated with fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, bruising, weakness, and sore throat. Some people experience more serious side effects including convulsions and hearing loss. When patients experience side effects, a doctor can be consulted to discuss methods for managing them. Serious side effects like convulsions should be reported because they may require medical treatment.

People using topical eflornithine cream should be aware that the medication needs to be evenly massaged into the skin of the face after being applied in a thin layer, and allowed to dry completely before applying sunscreen, makeup, and other products. It is also important to avoid washing the face for at least eight hours after an eflornithine application, to reduce the risk of washing the medication off. Washing the face before applying the medication can help keep the skin clean and open up the pores, allowing them to more completely absorb the cream. Measures such as shaving and tweezing will still need to be used to control facial hair.

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