Leveraging nature to make a better, safer super sunscreen

Exposure to UV light from the sun or from artificial sources is well known to give you that bronzed look that we tend to strive for year round. While there arebeneficial effects of sun exposure, long term exposure can result in sun burns, premature skin aging, and eventually cancer. To combat the harmful effects of UV exposure we apply sunscreen. Sunscreen is made up of compounds that either absorb the UV light or scatter it away from your skin. These compounds can include titanium dioxide, avobenzone, and dioxybenzone.  Sunscreen strength is referred to by its SPF, which is a fraction of the UV rays that reach the skin. An SPF of 15 means 1/15th of the UV rays that cause sun burns will reach your skin; SPF 50 means 1/50 of the UV rays. While these sunscreens have been historically quite successful in preventing sun burns there are concerns with their use. First, the active ingredients are not always environmentally friendly. Second, they don’t offer full protection against UV-A rays that have been shown to cause hidden skin damage and potentially DNA damage to the cells deep within your skin. Third, regular use of some sunscreens has recently come under scrutiny for their potential health impacts even though the bulk of scientific evidence suggests they are safe. For these reasons, there is a desire to make new sunscreens from safe, environmentally friendly compounds that also have protection against a broad spectrum of UV rays. This is why a group from Sweden has turned to nature and evolution for their sunscreen.

Many animals in the animal kingdom have evolved the ability to make secretions that protect them from the harmful effects of UV radiation and sunburns. These organisms can include fish, algae, and bacteria. By studying what compounds in the secretions offer protection, the scientists where able to develop a new sunscreen. Combining a compound found in these secretions, called mycosporines, with another compound found in the shells of crustaceans, called chitosan, the scientists made a polymer that could be easily applied to the skin. The special polymer was found to be just as effective at absorbing UV light as the mycosporine alone but was easier to apply. Current results suggest that the lotion is as good at absorbing UV-A and UV-B as commercially available sunscreens and could be made more effective by adding more mycosporines to the polymer. Additionally, the naturally sourced sunscreen is resistant to high temperatures and can remain stable and effective for at least 12 hours. This means in the future the sunscreen could be effective for long term protection of sun sensitive items like outdoor furniture. More importantly, the researchers saw that when applied directly to mouse skin cells, the polymer was non-toxic.

More work is needed before this is accepted as a new super sunscreen for human use but the initial results are promising. Soon may all be lathering with this fishy protection.

Photo Credit: Bùi Linh Ngân Flickr

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