For 10 years, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been on a quest for a better tanning product. Tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer by 59 percent for people under 35. Spray tans, meanwhile, contain a chemical called DHA, which might damage DNA. Besides, spray tans aren’t always that convincing. But still many people are in pursuit of the “perfect” tan. So far that desire doesn’t seem to be going away completely, so researchers are thinking of solutions to the myriad problems associated with tanning and artificial tanning products. What some researchers have been working on is a topical substance that stimulates the production of melanin pigment. According to the latest round of studies on mice, they’ve cracked the code. But the benefits of this new “real tan” cream could go way beyond cosmetic usage. Scientists remain hopeful that this new substance will cut rates of skin cancer as soon as it can be introduced on the market. “Assuming there are no safety concerns, it is clearly a better option than UV exposure,” Jerod Stapleton, of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, told Science magazine. “We are talking about millions of young people potentially not using tanning beds each year. …It could be a game-changer for skin cancer prevention.”
Stapleton was not involved in the latest study, but dermatologist David Fisher was.
“We are excited about the possibility of inducing dark pigment production in human skin without a need for either systemic exposure to a drug or UV exposure to the skin,” Fisher told Cosmopolitan. The substance spurs cells to produce melanin pigment, which naturally protects the skin from damage caused by the sun’s UV rays. To understand how a tanning cream can actually provide real health benefits, consider the action of a natural suntan. The UV light of the sun strikes the skin, damaging the cells with prolonged exposure. Skin cells respond by producing more dark melanin, which is the body’s way of protecting the skin from UV rays. Fisher’s “real suntan” cream skips the first step, spurring the skin to produce dark melanin without first sustaining damage.
Even redheads, who typically burn badly, can enjoy a nice tan by using this substance.
Unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait awhile before it hits the markets. “A lot more research has to be done before we see this sort of technology being used on humans, however, it’s certainly an interesting proposition,” Matthew Gass, of the British Association of Dermatologists, told BBC News. “Skin cancer rates in the UK are going through the roof…any research into ways that we can prevent people from developing skin cancer in the first place is to be welcomed.” The breakthrough study in this decade-long pursuit was published in the journal Cell Reports in July 2017. The secret was to manipulate a skin protein that scientists call salt-inducible kinase, or SIK for short. SIK controls the production of melanin, shutting off the cells that produce the pigment. Fisher and a chemist named Nathanael Gray, who works at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, found a molecule that inhibits the SIK action that shuts off melanin production. Then they shaved the backs of pale mice. They painted a liquid compound containing the special molecule on the exposed skin of the mice every day for a week. By day seven, the skin had become “almost jet black,” as Fisher described it to Science.
While the substance is a long way from commercial availability, Fisher and Gray have experimented on human skin.
They mixed in chemicals that are known to improve penetration into the skin, then they acquired patches of skin removed in unrelated surgical procedures. They tried many creams, but only one created a brown splotch on the skin. When the researchers examined this skin on a microscopic level, they found that it was indistinguishable from a natural suntan. So what would it take to create a cream that gives you a natural tan and reduces your chance of developing skin cancer? Well, the BBC reports that the research team is busy at work with more tests. A product like this has to be proven safe many times over before it will be approved for general use. The good news, though, is that the researchers have seen “no hint of problems,” they told the BBC.
Not every scientist is thrilled with this new development.
Jennifer Herrmann, a dermatological surgeon who works at Moy-Fincher-Chipps Facial Plastics & Dermatology in Beverly Hills, warns readers of Science that it’s too early to celebrate. A natural suntan cream could carry its own new risks, she said. “I worry these molecules could give people a false sense of security,” Herrmann said. “If you are just slightly darker, you may not give yourself a huge amount of protection.” For now, and maybe forever, Herrmann suggests that we’re better off with sunscreen. Someday soon, we might be able to pick up a tanning sunscreen that gives us the most possible protection from the sun’s rays while also darkening the skin to the desired hue. “Dr. Fisher says everyone should ‘absolutely’ use sun-cream, and they eventually want to combine it with the drug to provide the best protection from solar radiation,” the Independent reports. Imagine that: Soon, high-SPF sunscreens may not be the only name in the game.