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Topical Drug Darkens Human Skin Without UV Radiation

Chemically induced tan could prevent sunburn and skin cancer.

By
Mary Bates, Contributor
Monday, July 17, 2017

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 Maxplay photographer/Shutterstock

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A new topical drug can penetrate and tan laboratory samples of human skin in a dish without any exposure to the sun’s damaging rays. Researchers hope it will lead to the development of a lotion or cream that could protect fair-skinned people and others with sunlight sensitivity from skin cancer.

The drug works by activating the skin pigmentation pathway, stimulating cells to produce more melanin. Melanin absorbs ultraviolet radiation and decreases damage to skin cells.

The study, which was published in the journal Cell Reports, describes a class of small molecules that penetrate human skin and cause tans by inhibiting certain enzymes in the pigmentation pathway. The drug also produced protective tans in red-haired mice, which, like their human counterparts, are more susceptible to skin damage from ultraviolet radiation.

The goal of the research is to create a topical drug that could be used as an adjunct to regular sunscreen use. More testing is needed to determine its safety in humans, but the researchers think this approach could eventually help several populations reduce their risk of skin cancer. These include fair-skinned people who burn easily, people with vitiligo or certain types of albinism, and those with medical conditions that cause high sensitivity to sunlight.