Future Sunless Tanning Option May Increase Melanin Production

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Dermatologists have their work cut out for them in convincing patients to stop sunbathing and using tanning beds. These practices for achieving a warm skin tone remain popular in spite of the health risks they present. One of the reasons many people continue to seek out UV tanning is because the sunless tanning alternatives aren’t very satisfactory. Maintaining a high quality spray tan can be expensive and bronzing creams tend to streak (despite advertising to the contrary). Both can leave skin looking orange and unnatural.

Possible Sunless Tanning Option in Development

Now, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital have identified an enzyme that helps regulate the production of melanin in the skin. This protein (called PDE-4D3) switches off the process that leads to the development of skin pigmentation. It does this by breaking down the messenger molecule (cAMP) that triggers melanin production. The cAMP messenger molecule is activated by UV radiation and actually starts the process of creating both melanin and the PDE-4D3 enzyme. So, once the cAMP molecule has delivered its “message”, it is disintegrated by the enzyme it helped create. This makes the melanin production process naturally self-limiting. Blocking the activity of the enzyme allows the messenger molecule to keep stimulating the melanocytes (melanin producing skin cells) creating darker pigmentation.

Where Things Stand Now

So far, the researchers involved in this study have only worked with mice. The enzyme blocking agents they used won’t penetrate human skin. So, they will have to develop a different formula if they want to create a similar solution for humans. It has to be powerful enough to reach the melanin producing layers of the epidermis without entering the blood stream where it could interfere with enzyme activity in other parts of the body. If this research is successful, the resulting drug could be used to lower skin cancer risk in two ways. First, higher levels of melanin in the skin tend to provide some protection from UV radiation. Second, individuals who would otherwise engage in risky behaviors to achieve a tan would have another option for increasing pigmentation without excessive UV exposure.

Besides finding an enzyme blocking agent that penetrates to the correct depth (without any toxic side effects), there are other issues to consider in creating a real self-tanning cream. It would need to be one that could be absorbed evenly so that it would not create dark patches of pigmentation. Because skin is regenerated continuously, it would also need to be cost effective enough to be used on a long term basis to maintain an even tan.

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