Scientists discover chemical that triggers tan without the need for UV exposure


Scientists have created a chemical that can darken skin without the need for UV exposure, creating a real “fake” tan

Professor David Fisher and his team of scientists from the Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both in Boston, have found that a small molecule, called an SIK (salt-inducible kinases) inhibitor, could be used to artificially switch the melanin production process on, without the need for sunbathing or a genetic predisposition for tanning. 

The team set out to create a class of SIK-inhibiting molecules specially designed to penetrate the skin and trigger the dark pigment, weighing less and having a greater ability to dissolve and permeate through the membrane’s lipids – meaning it had a higher lipid solubility.

When tested in a laboratory culture of human skin, the scientists found that the more molecules applied, the more the skin darkened, and that the artificially induced tan lasted for several days.

The substance could even induce a tan in fair-skinned individuals, with Fisher commenting: “It would not actually be a fake tan, it would be the real thing.”

When a stronger dose of the molecules was applied to the skin of red-haired mice, they turned almost completely black in one to two days, with the artificial tan wearing off after a few days as the skin cells renewed themselves. 

“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,” said Fisher.

“We need to conduct safety studies, which are always essential with potential new treatment compounds, and better understand the actions of these agents."

So far, the product has only been tested on mice and skin samples in petri dishes, but the team hope to come up with a compound that could be used together with normal sunscreens.

“Sunscreen is extremely important; there definitely is protection, but [its] efficacy in melanoma and basal cell carcinoma is surprisingly and frustratingly incomplete,” added Fisher.

“If you have someone who can tan very easily, it seems to be protective above and beyond the SPF factor.”

The study has been published in the Cell Reports journal. Read it here.