While the research is still in early stages, scientists may have found a compound that can protect the skin by producing a sunless tan. The compound is called a SIK inhibitor, and it affects a protein that is involved in melanin production. The research began with the use of SIK inhibitors in red-haired mice, which, like human redheads, have a genetic variation that prevents them from producing brown-colored melanin. When the red-haired mice were given SIK inhibitors, their skin darkened, and the tan gradually faded once the treatment was stopped (just as “real” tans do).
Next, the researchers applied the SIK inhibitors to human skin samples in petri dishes for eight days. The drugs penetrated the skin samples and darkened the skin by stimulating the production of melanin.
Melanin’s protective effects
One of the biggest risk factors for developing skin cancer is having very fair skin that burns easily with exposure to the sun. Melanin, the substance that gives skin its pigment, has a protective effect in those with darker skin.
And while sunscreen is incredibly important in protecting the skin and preventing some types of skin cancer, it’s not as effective in reducing melanomas and basal cell carcinomas. People who have the ability to tan easily, producing melanin naturally in response to the sun, seem to have a protective factor beyond what sunscreen can provide.
A potential downside
While increasing the pigment in the skin is a great idea to protect against UV exposure, there is a potential risk in using drugs like SIK inhibitors. The enzyme that it blocks – SIK – is a natural tumor suppressor, and the process of blocking SIK may cause cancer in certain cases. More studies are needed to understand the potential risks and long-term effects of these drugs. It is likely that drugs like SIK inhibitors would be recommended for use only during the seasons of the year when UV exposure is at its highest and not used year-round.
The appeal of tanned skin continues to motivate people to lay in the sun or visit tanning beds. Drugs like SIK inhibitors may provide a safer way for people to experience tanned skin without the damage caused by harmful UV rays, and there will likely be cosmetic appeal for such a product. More important for researchers, though, is the ability to protect skin and prevent deadly skin cancers.
Mujahid N, et al. A UV-independent topical small-molecule approach for melanin production in human skin. Cell Reports. 2017 June;19(11):2177-2184. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2017.05.042.