This New Drug Promises Sun Protection While You Self-Tan

Photographed by Refinery29.
Now that laying outside with a bottle of SPF 4 and an aluminum foil reflector is no longer considered a responsible method of getting a summery, sun-kissed glow, the options are somewhat limited for a tanning enthusiast. Artificial tanners — the kind you use at home or the kind someone else gets paid to spray you with — get the job done, but not without streaks and stains. No matter which way you choose to tan, they all have their faults; it’s just that one is cancer and the other is having muddy orange knees for a week.
Given the high demand for tanning products that are better than the ones we have now, it’s not surprising that the topic has been taken to a lab. Now, Cell Reports shared that researchers have developed a topical drug that might work to tan skin naturally — and reduce the likelihood of skin cancer, too.
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Rather than staining the skin with brown pigment, as self-tanners usually work, this drug actually activates the production of the dark form of the skin pigment melanin, which absorbs UV radiation and lessens damage to skin cells. While similar results had been seen with different drugs when tested on mice in the past, the human epidermis is five times thicker than that of mice.
“There was an obvious interest in asking, could this be applied to human skin?” David Fisher, a cancer biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told Science Daily. Because the drugs they’d previously experimented with just couldn’t penetrate the surface of human skin, the researchers instead found a way to stimulate pigmentation with a different structure — and it worked. After eight days, the drug worked to deeply pigment the human skin sample.
The development of the drug is still in its initial stages, but it’s promising not only to those who want to tan, but also to easily burnt individuals looking for additional sun protection. There’s still more research to be done to ensure that the drug is safe for use, but dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, calls it “an exciting potential option.” He explains, “This medication will likely not take the place of traditional sunscreen and sun protective behavior, but it may be helpful in some of our most at-risk patients.”
A topical treatment that acts like a self-tanner and helps protect skin from the sun sounds way too good to be true — but maybe this kind of advancement is the consolation prize we get for the future not turning out the way The Jetsons promised.