Scientists may have found a safer way to tan, minus the cancer risk

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With summer here, chances are that you’ve probably spared a bit of thought for getting that sun-kissed, tanned look often associated with youth and vitality. The sad irony, of course, is that while we might associate suntanned skin with good health, prolonged sun exposure can lead to accelerated skin aging, as well as associated risks like skin cancer.

A new research project published in the journal Cell Reports suggests that things don’t have to remain that way, though. What scientists have discovered is a small molecule that may be able to stimulate the darkening of human skin, without exposing it to potentially harmful UV radiation. This involves inhibiting an enzyme called Salt Inducible Kinase (SIK), which naturally suppresses pigmentation. By inhibiting it, pigment synthesis is instead stimulated.

“Based upon human epidemiology which shows that darkly pigmented people are at significantly lower risk of developing skin cancer, as well as other indications of UV damage to skin, we suspect that the ability to stimulate pigment production [minus] use of damaging UV-rays, may provide the benefits without the damage from UV,” Dr. David Fisher of Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “In laboratory animals, it has been shown that UV-independent pigment darkening of redhaired mice does provide strong skin protection from UV. However, this has not yet been tested in humans. The current discovery will hopefully make it possible to test this [in people].”

Before this can be rolled out as a summer staple alongside beer coolers and barbecues, however, Fisher explains that it is important to first determine the safety or toxicity of the agent, in order to know how best to apply it to people. If the compounds are found to be safe, the researchers then hope to identify the population of people for whom such darkening would be most helpful, before carrying out initial clinical testing.

“We are currently in discussions with several potential partners for developing the approach toward clinical application,” Fisher said.

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