Black pepper could lead to better treatments for a disfiguring skin condition that affects about 1 percent of the world's population, British researchers said on Thursday.

A team at King's College London showed in a study of mice that piperine -- the compound that gives black pepper its spicy, pungent flavor -- and its synthetic derivatives helped stimulate pigmentation in the skin of people with vitiligo.

Piperine was particularly effective when combined with phototherapy treatment using ultraviolet radiation, the researchers said in a study to be published in the British Journal of Dermatology.

"We have shown that topical treatment with piperine stimulates even pigmentation in the skin," Antony Young, a photobiologist at King's College who worked on the study, said in a statement.

"This provides support for the future clinical evaluation of piperine and its derivatives as novel treatments for vitiligo."

The disease, to which pop star Michael Jackson has in the past attributed his gradual skin whitening, destroys the melanin which gives skin its color. Melanin protects from ultraviolet rays so victims run a much higher risk of skin cancer.

Vitiligo is of particular concern in people with darker skins, the researchers said.

Current treatments include steroids applied to patchy skin and phototherapy. But many people do not respond to hormones and phototherapy can raise the risk of skin cancer, the researchers said.

The team compared the effects of piperine and its derivatives when applied to the skin of mice either alone or followed by radiation treatment.

They found that when used alone the compounds stimulated pigmentation to an even, light brown color within six weeks. When boosted by radiation, the treatment led to even darker skin in about the same period of time.