Scientists Discover New Pathway to Tan and Lighten Skin


People have long used different methods to attempt to lighten or tan their skin. The 1920’s made beautiful, bronzed skin the latest fad, a trend that has persisted to this day in many parts of the world. Achieving that perfect sun-kissed look, however, has not always been safe.

Since doctors and health officials became aware of the dangers of UV rays on our skin, people have searched for a better alternative. Tanning beds and sun lamps have been linked to cancer, giving way to the evolution of spray tanning. Spray tanning formulas have even been enriched to contain organic oils and nourishing vitamins, in an attempt to make the option more appealing to customers.

However, new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania points to a new way to change the color of our skin. Researchers made an exciting discovery during a cancer study when they observed that sex hormones were affecting pigment production in regular cells. This breakthrough has uncovered a new doorway to controlling the lightening and tanning of the skin.

What Causes Skin to Change Color?

Scientists have long known the effects the sun has on skin. The sun darkens skin by causing damage to the DNA, which the body then repairs by increasing the production of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). This short protein binds and activates another protein (MC1R) on melanocytes. Ultimately, these proteins trigger the production of pigment in skin cells.

An association was also previously made between sex hormones and pigment changes. The alterations in skin pigmentation in pregnant women suggested that sex hormones played a role. In fact, this transformation has been documented for more than 2,000 years, so it is not a new observation.

While this connection was previously known to exist, the exact mechanism and hormones were not yet known. Since many hormones and other molecules experience changes in levels during pregnancy, isolating which single or combination is responsible for the changes in skin pigmentation would prove a significant challenge.

The fact that taking birth control pills would sometimes cause women to develop a darker skin pigment on their face did provide further insight, as these only contain derivatives of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Discovering a New Door

During the study, Dr. Ridky and colleagues noticed that when adding estrogen levels typically seen during pregnancy to human melanocytes, they would respond by increasing the production of melanin. The content of melanin within the cells increased by 200%-300% after four days. They also discovered that the cells would produce less pigment when adding progesterone.

What the study revealed, was that estrogen was making pigment by accessing pathways that were already known to exist, it was just accessing them in a different manner. This new door, or receptor, was able to create the same outcomes. The issue then became trying to figure out what type of receptors these were, since melanocytes do not have the classic estrogen receptor, nor do they act on MC1R.

The scientists were able to identify the melanocytes express receptors accountable for the skin pigment effects following further testing. This occasion would be the first time that these receptors were studied. These were found to be two non-classical receptors; the GPER, a separate estrogen receptor, and PAQR7, a progesterone receptor.

The team was able to identify the receptors by developing synthetic progesterone and estrogen derivatives. These were designed only to fit those newly discovered receptors. The researchers selected synthetic hormones, as natural hormones could unintentionally attach to different receptors and set of unknown processes.

Researchers took further steps towards the development of a treatment drug, by incorporating the hormone derivatives into a gel. This formula was applied to mice’s ears and was found to increase melanin levels by roughly 60% within a three-week period.

The gel well also used on pigmented guinea pigs, of which one animal can display different skin colors. The animal had its haunches shaved on either side, with one part receiving the application of gel with the estrogen derivative, and the other a gel without derivatives or hormones. The side with the hormone derivatives was noticeably darker after a couple of weeks when compared to the other.

How These Results Could Lead to Treatments

The knowledge obtained during this study could help lead to a new form of therapeutics, which is of particular importance given the currently limited types of safe and effective treatment options available for those with pigmentation disorder. New therapies could offer help with melasma, post-inflammatory hyper and hypopigmentation, and maybe even vitiligo. Currently, correcting these disorders is difficult, without exposure to toxic bleaching agents or UV radiation.

The new information gathered during the study suggests that derivatives of these selective sex hormones can be used to affect the natural melanin production machinery. This discovery would allow for the opportunity to develop a drug that safely targets the natural pigment production pathway within a person’s skin cells.

Of course, an actual cream is still a long way from completion. The team would still need to create a formula that could be used by humans and ensure there were no side effects to using the cream. The compounds will also need to go through clinical trials and the FDA before they are made available to dermatologists. The development process itself is expensive, so a start-up has already been formed to attempt to woo potential investors.

The news would not only be significant for the medical industry but is also set to have a substantial impact on the cosmetics industry, where people already spend billions of dollars globally to change the color of their skin. Many of these attempts are unsuccessful, and even potentially dangerous, so developing a safe and effective alternative in the form of a drug could radicalise the industry.

As more and more people become aware of the cancer risks involved in UV tanning, whether you’re out in the sun or on the beds, they are turning to other options. Spray tanning is a far healthier option, with salons already offering several color levels lasting about a week at a time. However, the industry is constantly evolving, so this new potential option would offer customers an exciting alternative.

Cite this article:
Ivanovic J (2016-09-12 08:45:21). Scientists Discover New Pathway to Tan and Lighten Skin. Australian Science. Retrieved: Jul 15, 2024, from