A Tan Without Actual Sun? We Dreamt About it, Scientists Made it Happen

Good news for all the pale-skinned redheads that burst into flames the second they step onto the beach – you might be able to have a tan after all.

Scientists have developed a drug that tricks the pigmentation in our skin into tanning, without the sun’s UV rays. The discovery that is sure to change spring break forever comes from a team at Massachusetts General Hospital, who discovered the process of producing the brown form of the pigment melanin through testing on skin samples from mice.

Before you get angry that scientists are devoting their time to helping people get Baywatch-worthy tans instead of focusing on cancer, there is a noble cause behind the scientific breakthrough. The scientists hope the discovery will eventually help them save lives, by preventing skin cancer. When your skin darkens through chemical reactions caused by the sun that leads to dark melanin, it’s your body’s way of protecting itself. Some people don’t produce this melanin at all though and simply burn, which can lead to melanoma skin cancer.

In the United States alone, one person dies from melanoma every hour and 86% of cases can be attributed to the sun’s harmful UV rays. It’s expected that one in five people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer at some point, and more cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year than breast, colon, prostate and lung cancers combined.

Dr. David Fisher, one of the researchers, told BBC: “Our real goal is a novel strategy for protecting skin from UV radiation and cancer. Dark pigment is associated with a lower risk of all forms of skin cancer – so that would be really huge.”

Unlike spray tans which offer zero protection from the sun, the study reveals that the melanin produced by the drug did successfully act against UV rays. “The activation of the tanning/pigmentation pathway by this new class of small molecules is physiologically identical to UV-induced pigmentation without the DNA-damaging effects of UV,” Fisher said.

Fisher and his team have been working on the process since 2006 and used a topical compound called forskolin to induce tanning in a strain of red-haired mice. Typically, when our skin is exposed to the sun’s UV rays, it fires up a chemical reaction in our body that produces melanin (the pigment that gives hair, skin, and eyes a dark coloring). This is why people in sunnier climates tend to have darker skin, hair and eyes, while people who live in places like Scotland, are much more fair-skinned.

The skin treated with the new drug (on the right) is significantly darker than with other treatments.

Redheads have a much more difficult time producing the protective dark melanin pigment, though Fisher and his team are confident the drug would work for them as well. So far it’s only been tested on mice and small skin samples, but the researchers are hopeful that the drug, which is rubbed into the skin to start the process, could be produced in the form of a sunblock.

Matthew Gass, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said the approach to preventing skin cancer was certainly interesting and added that “more research has to be done before we see this sort of technology being used on humans.”

While it won’t be available for this summer’s beach season, the fact that even the palest among us will one day be able to safely have the tan of a Hawaiian Tropic bikini model is surely promising.

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