Résumé : Ethnopharmacological relevance: Traditional herbal medicines provide an interesting, largely unexplored source for the development of potential new drugs and skin-care cosmetics. Some herbal extracts are known to be inhibitors of melanin formation, sometimes more potent than the classical inhibitors, hydroquinone/arbutin or kojic acid, and are not associated with melanocytes cytotoxicity or mutagenicity. Such plants are used in traditional medicine in many countries, particularly in Africa, for skin lightening. Aim of the study: To evaluate in vitro the ability of Rwandese medicinal plants, traditionally used for the treatment of skin (discoloration and attenuation of discolored spots), to modulate pigmentation and tyrosinase activity. Materials and methods: Based on an ethnopharmacological survey, five herbs [Brillantaisia cicatricosa Lindau (Acanthaceae), Chenopodium ugandae (Aellen) Aellen (Chenopodiaceae), Dolichopentas longiflora Oliv. (Rubiaceae), Protea madiensis Oliv. (Proteaceae) and Sesamum angolense Welw. (Pedaliaceae)] were selected. Twenty-seven extracts, obtained by treating the herbs with increasing polarities solvents, were investigated for their effects on cell viability (MTT test) and on pigmentation: inhibition of the enzyme tyrosinase (colorimetry of reaction products, measurement of enzyme activity, TLC-autography; studies on crude cellular extracts obtained from normal melanocytes and on a mushroom tyrosinase) and measurement of melanogenesis by human melanoma cells. Results: None of the tested plant extracts were cytotoxic on tested human melanoma cell lines, except for Dolichopentas longiflora (IC50 of leaves n-hexane extract, 4 μg/ml for MM028 and 4.5 μg/ml for MM001; IC50 of roots ethyl acetate extract, 0.8 μg/ml for MM028 and 3.9 μg/ml for MM001). Almost all extracts inhibited melanogenesis in a melanoma whole cells overall pigmentation assay, a model reflecting the entire cycle of melanogenesis. All the Protea madiensis extracts quite strongly inhibited melanogenesis and, surprisingly, one of the Dolichopentas longiflora leaves extracts was found to increase melanogenesis. These results were confirmed by the modulation of pigmentation reactions by crude cellular extracts obtained from normal melanocytes; interestingly, one of the extracts (Dolichopentas longiflora ethyl acetate extract) is even more active (61% at 500 μg/ml) than kojic acid (<3% at 142 μg/ml and 68% at 1421 μg/ml). In a mushroom tyrosinase inhibition assay, data obtained on some extracts fairly agree with pigmentation inhibition measured on melanocytes proteins as, for example, the methanol extract of Protea madiensis. While a few others extract display discording data, this probably reflects either differences between human and mushroom tyrosinase, interference with melanocytes enzymes at later steps than tyrosinase or the simultaneous presence of compounds with conflicting activities in a given extract. Conclusions: Ethnopharmacological data represent an efficient approach to discover active herbs. Some of the selected medicinal plants clearly show potent tyrosinase inhibitions while one extract significantly increases cell pigmentation; one extract contains potent growth melanocytes inhibitors. © 2013 Elsevier Ireland Ltd.