Photo: brown mouse
Scientists have invented a lotion that gives mice tans.

Photograph by John Good/National Park Service

Catherine Clarke Fox

Scientists have invented a lotion that gives laboratory mice a dark tan in just three weeks. No, they aren’t planning to send the mice to the beach. But the research could be an important step in creating a lotion that helps humans avoid getting skin cancer.

Everyone knows that people with pale skin—and especially redheads—are most likely to get sunburned. That’s because their skin isn’t good at producing melanin, which protects skin cells by blocking the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Dr. David Fisher is an oncologist—a doctor who treats cancer. He was testing a lotion to see if it would cause mice to produce melanin in their skin, just like the sun does, without the danger of being exposed to the sun’s rays. The special ingredient in the lotion comes from a plant.

“We had suspected that it would darken the skin (that's why we tested it), but we didn't know that it could turn the appearance of a very fair-skinned mouse so dark,” says Fisher.

Someday researchers might be able to make a lotion that will turn human skin darker to protect it from dangerous UV rays. But that’s a long way off.

“I have been tempted to try some of the lotion on my own skin,” explains Fisher. “However, there is not yet any study in human skin to test whether the treatment is safe.”

It’s fun to play out in the sunshine, but remember, says Dr. Fisher, the sun can be dangerous. “It can injure our skin and cause bad effects that don't happen until much later.”

That's why we must be careful about avoiding sun exposure—until scientists find just the right solution.

Sun Safety Tips:

  • Wear sunscreen
  • Cover up with hats, long sleeves, and long pants or skirts
  • Look for clothes made with the newest sun-blocking fabrics
  • Play in the shade

Text by Catherine Clarke Fox