Discovery Could Lead to Natural Tan, Sans the Sun

(Image credit: Scott Snyder | Stock Xchng)

The discovery of a way to crank up the production of skin pigment could pave the way for future drugs that allow us to get the perfect, golden glow of naturally tanned skin without the sun, according to a new study.

By blocking a specific molecule in mice, scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital found cells near the skin's surface can be made to produce more melanin, a skin pigment, leading to darker skin.

That means people looking to get a naturally glowing complexion may, in the future, have a more genuine option than self-tanning creams, which can create an orange or ruddy hue, and a safer alternative to tanning salons and laying out at the beach, said study researcher Dr. David Fisher, director of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

And the finding carries meaning beyond the cosmetic such a drug could also increase our natural protection against the sun's ultraviolet rays, Fisher said.

"It's not exactly clear how much darkening is needed in order to see a benefit," Fisher told MyHealthNewsDaily. "But what we know is that, epidemiologically, even people who have pigmentation that is not dramatically dark but is somewhat darker typically have a profoundly lower risk" of skin cancer.

The more melanin in the skin, the more protection there is from cancer-causing UV rays, Fisher said.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Exposure to UV light and sunlight cause up to 90 percent of melanoma , the third most common type of skin cancer, and the deadliest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A drug that could turn on production of skin pigmentation would most likely be available in a topical form, like a lotion or a cream, Fisher said. It would act differently from self-tanning lotions, because those add a layer of color to the top of the skin, whereas a drug developed from this research would act beneath the skin.

But don't go running off to the drug store just yet.

The drug given to the mice in the study hasn't yet been shown to work in humans, and a human's skin is five times thicker than a mouse's, Fisher said. There's no telling when such a drug might be available to the public.

"It's really difficult to predict when that would be, or if we can do it," Fisher said. "Human skin is a very good barrier."

Fisher's ongoing research is centered on finding a drug that can seep into the skin to affect the cells below the surface, but is safe enough to not produce any toxic effects.

The study was published Oct. 14 in the journal Genes & Development.

Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.