Sunless Tanning Drug Sure to Increase Skin Cancer

sunless tanning drug

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers created a topical drug that, when applied to samples of human skin in the lab, led to tanning without UV exposure
  • The researchers are pinning their hopes on consumers using the topical drug in combination with sunscreen to shield skin from the sun, but in so doing inadvertently could be increasing an individual’s cancer risk
  • Sensible sun exposure is important for vitamin D production and heart health and may reduce your risk of certain types of cancer

By Dr. Mercola

Melanin is the pigment that gives skin (as well as hair and eyes) its color. Dark-skinned people have more melanin in their skin, and the presence of dark melanin, known as eumelanin, is associated with a low skin cancer risk.1 It would seem plausible, then, that creating an artificial way to stimulate pigmentation in human skin could lower the risks of damage from excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

There is a natural way to do this — get regular exposure to the sun in short increments, gradually building up your time spent in the sun to create a natural tan. As part of my healthy sunbathing tips, I recommend building up your tolerance by starting early in the spring, with as few as five minutes of exposure time, and gradually increasing the time you spend in the sun to avoid getting burned.

Once your tolerance has been built up, aim for 15 to 30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure two to four times per week, around midday, to maximize vitamin D production and other benefits of sun exposure. Health officials, on the other hand, would generally have you believe that virtually all sun exposure should be avoided (or only chanced after the application of copious amounts of sunscreen); hence, the creation of a sunless tanner “drug” that artificially boosts melanin in human skin.2

Topical Drug Created to Boost Skin’s Melanin, Provide Sunless Tanning

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital created a topical small-molecule salt-inducible kinase (SIK) inhibitor that, when applied to samples of human skin in the lab, led to tanning without UV exposure. SIK is known to regulate MITF, “the master regulator of pigment genes,” and the topically applied drug created by the researchers proved to upregulate MITF, inducing pigment production.3

The drug was first tested on mice and then on human skin in a lab dish. As Time reported, “[T]he lab-tanned skin cells looked indistinguishable from skin cells that were tanned by the sun, meaning they benefited from the protection provided by the darker pigment without the need for exposure to UV rays.”4 The study’s lead author, Dr. David Fisher, said the drug is triggering the production of “real melanin … in a UV-independent fashion,”5 and further said in a news release:6

"The activation of the tanning/pigmentation pathway by this new class of small molecules is physiologically identical to UV-induced pigmentation without the DNA-damaging effects of UV … We need to conduct safety studies, which are always essential with potential new treatment compounds, and better understand the actions of these agents. But it's possible they may lead to new ways of protecting against UV-induced skin damage and cancer formation.

… We are excited about the possibility of inducing dark pigment production in human skin without a need for either systemic exposure to a drug or UV exposure to the skin."

Sun Avoidance Is a Recipe for Cancer

The researchers are pinning their hopes on consumers using the topical drug in combination with sunscreen to shield skin from the sun, but in so doing this inadvertently could be increasing an individual’s cancer risk. As I’ve written about for some time, when you apply sunscreen to your skin, you block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D. Many people are already deficient in vitamin D, which actually increases your risk of cancer.

In fact, a large number of studies have shown raising your vitamin D level can significantly reduce your risk of cancer. Having a serum vitamin D level of at least 40 ng/mL reduces your risk for cancer by 67 percent compared to having a level of 20 ng/ml or less; most cancers occur in people with a vitamin D level between 10 and 40 ng/mL.7 Vitamin D also increases your chances of surviving cancer if you do get it, and this includes melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.8

Beyond this, the use of a topical drug to induce tanning that can be gleaned from safe, sensible sun exposure once again propagates the idea that humans are not meant to be in the sun. This is misguided at best and dangerous at worst, as there are a number of benefits to sunlight exposure, many that we’re only beginning to understand. When you're exposed to sunlight, many important biological processes occur in your skin, not just vitamin D production.

Unfortunately, the entire focus of most dermatologists is preventing skin damage, which means ignoring the other side — the benefits — of the sun exposure equation. Take, for instance, the fact that research has shown that when sunlight strikes your skin, nitric oxide is released into your bloodstream,9 and nitric oxide is a powerful blood-pressure-lowering compound.

This has led researchers to conclude that sun exposure may prolong your life by significantly cutting your heart attack/stroke risk.10 The carbon monoxide your hemoglobin molecules release in response to UV radiation also acts as a neurotransmitter, and has beneficial effects on your nervous system. Like nitric oxide, it causes relaxation and has anti-inflammatory activity.

Melanoma Myths Are Widespread

Your skin is designed to be in the sun. It’s the burning as a result of intermittent overexposure that primarily impacts your skin cancer risk and, while Americans have dutifully followed sun avoidance advice in recent decades, the melanoma rate in the U.S. has actually risen rather than declined.11 Rates of melanoma have been rising for at least the last three decades, and research published in the British Journal of Dermatology suggests the sun is likely nothing more than a scapegoat.12

According to this study, the rise in melanoma appears to be “an artifact caused by diagnostic drift,” which refers to a hefty increase in disease diagnoses fueled by detection and misclassification of benign lesions as stage 1 melanoma. “The distribution of the lesions reported did not correspond to the sites of lesions caused by solar exposure,” the researchers noted, adding:13

“These findings should lead to a reconsideration of the treatment of 'early' lesions, a search for better diagnostic methods to distinguish them from truly malignant melanomas, re-evaluation of the role of ultraviolet radiation and recommendations for protection from it, as well as the need for a new direction in the search for the cause of melanoma.”

Applying Sunscreen, Avoiding the Sun Aren’t Cancer-Free Guarantees

The one-size-fits-all recommendation to apply sunscreen every time you go outside is also misguided. In addition to exposing people to dangerous chemicals in sunscreen, an analysis by epidemiologist Marianne Berwick, Ph.D., shows there’s very little evidence to suggest that sunscreen use will prevent skin cancer.14 After analyzing a dozen studies on basal cell carcinoma (which is typically non-lethal) and melanoma, Berwick found that people who use sunscreen are more likely to develop both of these conditions.

Only two of 10 melanoma studies found that sunscreen was protective against this condition; three found no association either way. None found sunscreen use protected against basal cell carcinoma. It’s also worth mentioning that you can get melanoma even if you’re not a frequent sunbather.

One study, which followed more than 100,000 women for more than eight years, found that melanoma affected less than three-tenths of 1 percent of those who tanned frequently, and less than two-tenths of 1 percent of those who didn't tan.15 Not only is your risk of developing melanoma from sun exposure exceedingly small — well below 1 percent — but your risk of developing melanoma does not disappear by avoiding sun exposure. It's just one-tenth of 1 percent lower than if you did get frequent exposure.

Sun Exposure Is Good for Your Heart

Research by dermatologist Dr. Richard Weller and colleagues suggest sun exposure has cardiovascular benefits independent of vitamin D, and cardiovascular disease is a far greater public health problem than skin cancer.

There are two primary reasons why sun exposure is good for your heart. As mentioned, exposure to the sun increases nitric oxide production, which will relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure and decrease platelet activation, making your blood thinner and less likely to clot and form a stroke or heart attack. Nitric oxide will also improve your immune function.

Recent research has also shown that exposure to red at 660 nm and near infrared at 830 nm rays from the sun both have powerful benefits on improving mitochondrial function. This is because cytochrome c oxidase, which is one of the electron transport chains in the mitochondria, are chromophores for those wavelengths and when they absorb that energy the efficiency of ATP and mitochondrial cellular energy is increased.

Research even shows that women with active sun-exposure habits ended up having a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and non-cancer death compared to those who avoided the sun, and the study authors even concluded that “avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking.”16

How to Improve Your Health Via Sensible Sun Exposure

The featured study’s topical sunless tanning drug is still a long way from hitting the market, if it does at all, but it’s shortsighted to suggest that artificially darkening your skin could improve your health or prevent cancer. It’s far more complex than that, and by encouraging people to once again avoid the sun, use a drug to get a fake “tan” and then apply sunscreen, cancer risk could be increased instead of decreased.

Tanning via sun exposure is your body's natural protection against sunburn; it's what your body was created to do. Some physicians falsely refer to tanning as "skin damage," but calling a tan "damage" isn't telling the whole story. Calling a tan "damaged skin" is much like saying that exercise "damages muscles." When you exercise, you are actually tearing tiny muscle fibers in your body.

At first glance, when examined at the micro-level, this tearing could be called "damage." But this tissue breakdown is your body's natural way of building stronger muscle tissue.

Similarly, tanning is your skin's natural way of protecting you from the dangers of sunburn and further exposure. Again, it is the burning of your skin and chronic excessive exposures — not the limited, sensible exposure to sunlight — that increases your risk for skin cancer. Following are more general guidelines that may help you maximize benefits from sun exposure while mitigating the risks:

The lighter your skin, the less exposure to UV light is necessary. Lighter skin is also more vulnerable to damage from overexposure.

Always avoid sunburn. Be particularly careful if you have not been in the sun for some time. Your first exposures of the year are the most sensitive, so limit your initial time in the sun.

Once your tolerance has been built up, aim for enough sun exposure to keep your vitamin D level around 40 to 60 ng/mL.

Expose as much skin as you can, not just your arms and face. As soon as your skin starts to turn pink, discontinue exposure and cover up your skin to avoid burning.

Boost your “internal sunscreen” by eating antioxidant-rich foods and healthy fats. Astaxanthin can be a helpful supplement.

When you'll be in the sun for longer periods, cover up with clothing, a hat or shade. A safe sunscreen can be applied after you've optimized your skin's daily vitamin D production, although clothing is your safest option to prevent burning and skin damage.

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