May 18, 2023: Scientists have made significant progress in understanding the fundamental composition of melanin, a substance present in almost all living organisms, through a recent breakthrough. This discovery has brought them closer to the development of a novel sunscreen derived from biological sources, which could offer exceptional levels of protection. The groundbreaking research, conducted by McGill's Department of Chemistry in partnership with The Ohio State University and the University of Girona, focuses on a specific component of melanin responsible for converting light into heat, thereby safeguarding the body against sun damage.
Melanin, the natural pigment responsible for human skin, eye, and hair colouration, serves as the body's primary and most effective defence against the sun's harmful UV rays. For years, cosmetic companies have been attempting to harness the protective properties of both natural and synthetic melanin for incorporation into chemical sunscreens and other personal care items. One potential application is using melanin to create a radiation barrier that complements a wider range of natural skin tones in skin care products. However, due to its infamously unstable nature and the challenges associated with studying it at a molecular level, scientists have struggled to visualise melanin's molecular structure. Consequently, progress in utilising melanin in personal care products has been hindered, and a slow and experimental approach has been necessary thus far.
"As we gain a better understanding of the structure of melanin, we should be able to predictably make alternatives that perform better than what is currently available," said Jean-Philip Lumb, one of the lead authors of the research paper, in the university’s official press release. He further said, "We've taken a major step forward in understanding a new mechanism for how melanin can serve as a sunscreen."
According to the research, it was discovered that the melanin component transformed light into heat across a wide range of wavelengths, including ultraviolet and infrared, effectively providing comprehensive protection. Furthermore, the molecule was found to be exceptionally compact, which the scientists believe is advantageous due to its lower atomic requirement for achieving such high levels of sun protection, surpassing any previous findings.
The breakthrough brings us closer to a future where we can harness the natural properties of melanin to shield our skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. By leveraging the power of this pigment, scientists aim to create a sunscreen that not only offers superior protection but also addresses concerns surrounding the use of certain chemical ingredients found in conventional sunscreens. While there is still work to be done before this technology becomes widely available, the progress made so far is undeniably promising. With continued dedication and innovation, we are closer to a day when we can confidently enjoy the sun's warmth while keeping our skin safeguarded from its potential harm.