Scientists Create Topical Drug That Tans Skin


A sun-kissed complexion is often admired and envied, and thought to be a beauty standard by many.

However, spending too much time in the sun can lead to skin cancer and negative effects from harmful ultraviolet rays. In particular, fair-skinned people suffer severe sunburns more than those who with olive or darker skin.

Credit: Micadew/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Can a tan complexion be achieved without the potential sunburn or skin cancer risk? A new study unveils a way to tan a person’s skin without the sun — and can, in fact, protect a person’s skin from the sun as well.

It is often said that there is no such thing as a safe tan, but that does not stop people from trying. Exposure to the sun and the UV rays that emanate from it are directly linked to skin cancer. Skin cancer affects one in five people and is the most common form of cancer in the world. A person dies from melanoma every 54 minutes, making it a very deadly disease, although almost entirely preventable.

More people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, in most cases simply due to the sun exposure that occurs in everyday life and circumstance. More than five bad sunburns greatly increases a person’s risk for melanoma, so it is crucial avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. Unfortunately, that means a less tan complexion for most people.

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However, David Fisher, chief of Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, has worked with a team of researchers to provide a new topical drug that allows sun protection, while also causing a change in the skin’s pigment. So far, this topical drug has only been tested on mice, but it has shown results in altering skin pigment to produce more UV-absorbing cells, which can protect the skin from sun damage.

Published in Cell Reports, a full description of the topical drug and its purpose was detailed by the professor. They used red-haired mice, which, like red-haired humans, are more susceptible to skin damage and skin cancer caused by sun exposure. The drug effectively switches the skin from light to dark, causing a more tan appearance but also allowing the skin to avoid as much sun damage as possible.

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“We used our detailed knowledge of the signaling pathways controlling pigmentation, to generate a class of chemical compounds that can inhibit an enzyme which antagonizes the pigmentation pathway, thereby stimulating skin pigmentation,” Fisher told reporters in an interview.

As mentioned, this has not yet been tested in humans, as the skin barrier function varies between mammals. However, Fisher plans to test this and answer pressing questions about human application as soon as possible.

“We are studying exactly these types of questions: doses, schedules, toxicity, and we are in conversation with potential industry partners or considering a focused company (startup) to further develop the technology,” he said.