Do you spend hours on the beach or in the tanning booth knowing it increases your chance of getting skin cancer - or do you try a tanning lotion and run the risk of turning orange instead?
There could soon be a third option in the quest for that sun-kissed look. Scientists developed a treatment that can darken skin without exposing it to harmful UV rays emitted by the sun and tanning beds, which can cause cancer by damaging DNA in skin cells.
The new treatment involves applying a chemical that encourages cells to produce melanin, the pigment that makes skin darker. Melanin also protects us from UV radiation, meaning the treatment could also help prevent skin cancer, especially in those with fair skin who are most at risk.
The scientists, from Massachusetts General Hospital, have only tested the treatment on skin samples rather than on people, so they are still unsure of any side effects. They hope one day it could replace sunbeds as well as provide health benefits.
Skin cancer specialist Dr David Fisher said: “The pigmentation induced here did not use UV at all - that is one of the most important points. UV mutates DNA and causes skin cancer. The topical chemical agent in our study induces pigmentation without any need for UV, and it is probably protective against UV. We believe the potential importance of this work is towards a novel strategy for skin cancer prevention. Skin is the most common organ in our bodies to be afflicted with cancer, and the majority of cases are thought to be associated with UV radiation.”
Enzymes called salt-inducible kinases (SIKs) regulate pigmentation, so the team developed a molecule called an SIK inhibitor which blocked the enzymes and prompted skin cells to produce more melanin than normal.
When applied daily, this caused the skin to darken in just eight days, the study, published in the journal Cell Reports, found.
Fisher said the treatment could be used as a cream or lotion, but further research is needed, including safety tests. He said the best sun protection may be a combination of this type of treatment with regular UV-blocking suncream.
David Adams, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, described the work as a significant advance: “If administered properly, I imagine that the level of protection obtained by redheads would approximate the level of sun protection enjoyed by people with naturally tanned skin.” - Daily Mail