People still spend days lying out in the sun and sitting in tanning booths, despite the medical risks involved. The recent discovery of a skin lotion that makes people tan -- and prevents skin cancer -- may end those tanning sessions.
Dermatologists have spent years searching for a way to help people tan without the associated health risks. Now, a lab in Boston has created mice that may hold the secret to safe tanning. The mice were coated with an experimental skin lotion which seems to protect them from developing skin cancer. If the cream works on humans, it would be the first true tan, available in a tube.
Researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School were examining what happens at the cellular level in people who can tan in order to help pale-skinned people and redheads who can't. The researchers, led by melanoma program director David Fisher, thought a compound called forskolin might activate the same tan-producing mechanism.
After ordering the compound, which comes from a root of a traditional Hindu plant, Fisher made a lotion and applied it to the mice.
"I will confess I suspected we might see some darkening," says Fisher. "But I was fairly shocked that it was as efficient and complete as what we actually saw."
After several weeks, of applying every day, the mice became really tan.
Fisher was surprised at how dark. "Seriously brown, dark brown, and even black," he says. "It [was] difficult to distinguish from mice born with dark skin."
The tan skin cells of the mice seemed identical to cells tanned by the sun. In tests, the tan mice were less likely than pale mice to develop skin cancer when exposed to ultraviolet light. Under the microscope, the lotion has had some effect on human epithelial cells, though it's unclear whether the compound will work on people. Fisher says he's been tempted to try the stuff on his skin, but hasn't yet.
The dermatology community is waiting for further testing.
"I think this is a very interesting development," says American Academy of Dermatology president Steven Stone, who would prefer that people were content with their natural skin color.
But that's not the case. People still spend days lying out in the sun and going to tanning booths, despite the medical risks involved.
"We're obviously dealing with something that's very preliminary," Stone says. "But if you could get somebody to put a lotion on their skin and stay as natural as a sun-induced tan without the risk of cancer — assuming it would be available eventually at an affordable price I think people would change their habits."
Or at least have a protective tan when they do go out. David Lefell, a dermatologist at Yale, says dermatologists long ago figured out they weren't going to persuade people to live under a rock.
"I think there's something about being out in the sun that draws people," Lefell says. "In our literature, our music, [and] our culture, there's something that speaks forever about the attractiveness of being outdoors."
The American Cancer Institute estimates there are 62,000 cases of melanoma skin cancer in the United States every year, resulting in 8,000 deaths.