Good news for the fair-skinned among us: Scientists in Massachusetts have developed a drug that darkens and protects human skin without the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) light. Dr. David Fisher, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells the BBC the drug initiates a series of chemical reactions that enables skin to produce sun-blocking dark melanin without exposure to dangerous UV light—which initiates the same chemical reactions, but only after damaging the skin. "Under the microscope it's the real melanin,” Fisher says. “It really is activating the production of pigment in a UV-independent fashion." The drug could be a good thing even for people who don't crave a tan: Dark pigment provides a protective barrier against UV radiation, reducing the risk of skin cancer.
In an interview with STAT, Fisher says the next step will be to test the drug’s safety, with the first test subjects most likely being "individuals who are at the highest risk for developing skin cancer.” If further tests prove successful the new drug could prove to be a substitute for other self-tanning activities, like lotions, which essentially paint the skin but provide no melanin protection, and tanning beds, which expose the skin to harmful UV rays and can thus be risky. Still, according to Science News, the drug would not, on its own, be considered a substitute for sunscreen, which blocks UV rays but has the counteractive effect of leaving skin pale and vulnerable. Ideally, Dr. Fisher says, the drug would be combined with sunscreen in a single product. (Read more suntan stories.)