Healthy Tans May Be in Our Future, Thanks to Science


No spray tan, tanning bed or self-tanning cream achieves that same sun-kissed glow of the real sun — which explains why so many people risk sun damage and even skin cancer for that bronzed summer look. However, scientists may be close to discovering a UV-free way to darken skin pigment, which would mean we could finally say goodbye to that fake-tan look once and for all.

This new development in darkening the skin is important for more than just looks — melanin helps protect skin against the sun and gives people a seriously viable alternative to self-tanning products. These products are not only frequently smelly and messy, but they can also be dangerous. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is a chemical the FDA has approved in self-tanning creams and lotions, but not in sprays (due to the risk of ingesting the spray into the lungs).

For the past decade a group of researchers has been trying to find a solution to healthy tanning, and judging by a recently released report in Cell Reports, they are getting excitingly close. Scientists initially identified the molecular pathways that regulate the skin tone in mice and were able to successfully manipulate these pathways with certain compounds, resulting in darkened skin.

However, the science didn’t apply to humans because our skin is five times thicker than your average mouse’s. The same compounds used to change the mice’s skin didn’t even come close to penetrating our flesh. “So we’ve been eager over the past 10 years to see if there might be other drugs and other compounds that could achieve the same effect, but that would be able to penetrate into human skin,” explains lead researcher David Fisher, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

With the help of chemist Nathaniel Gray and his team, scientists successfully tweaked small-molecule salt-inducible protein kinases to fit inside a human’s thick skin. When applied to human skin — well, human skin cells in a petri dish, to be exact — the tanning response mimicked the sun, sloughing off in a week or two just like a real suntan.

The compound hasn’t yet been tested on a human, but Fisher is confident we will be using this product in the future. “I would hope that we’d be in a position to have a solid answer in terms of where this is going in three to five years,” he says.

The bad news? We will still be relying on sunscreen to protect us from cancer for many years to come. “This is not meant to replace sunscreen, but rather is an additional component. UV protection is still absolutely important.”

So until science can find a reliable way to prevent sun damage and cancer, here are the 30 safest sunscreens along with three to avoid this summer.

What Do YOU Think?

Are you excited about the prospect of UV-free tanning? Do you think this could be a game changer for skin cancer? Will people use more SPF if they can tan without the sun?