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A “natural” tan to beat the sun

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


With skin cancer rates soaring, dermatologists have been warning people to protect themselves from the sun, but the popularity of tanning means the advice often goes unheeded. Thanks to a new cosmetic tanning lotion developed by Yale senior research scientist John M. Pawelek, Ph.D., tanners will soon be able to get that sun-soaked look without sitting under the sun or in a tanning booth.

Dr. Pawelek's medical research focuses on therapies for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. While doing basic research with professor of dermatology Jean Bolognia, M.D., on melanocytes, the pigment cells that color skin and provide protection from the sun, he came upon a method for producing a water soluble form of melanin derived from the aloe vera plant. The extract, which is chemically indistinguishable from natural human melanin, immediately changes the skin's color to a natural-looking tanned hue and has skin cancer-protective qualities similar to real melanin.

In an added bonus, it also has remarkable chameleon-like characteristics that cause it to blend its hue to that of the individual's surrounding skin. To Dr. Pawelek's surprise, following early publicity about the product, he has received a flood of inquiries from people who suffer from vitiligo, a skin disorder causing a progressive loss of pigmentation cells that affects 1 percent of the world's population. San-Mar Laboratories Inc., which licensed the discovery from Yale, will be producing cosmetic products containing it for marketing worldwide before year's end “It may prevent many cases of skin cancer,” says Dr. Pawelek “and should bring relief to at least some people with vitiligo.”