Melbourne-based EpiTan is testing a synthetic hormone called Melanotan-1. The substance, invented more than two decades ago at the University of Arizona, is a souped-up version of the hormone that instructs melanocytes to start making pigment.
Studies of the drug have shown that it can burnish the skin of even the fairest redhead. And the tanning effect doesn't require sunlight.
"You could tan a little bit even if you were in a cave with the drug," says Robert Dorr, a University of Arizona pharmacologist who works as a consultant to EpiTan.
Dorr says the drug works best for people who already tan well, and when used in combination with some sun exposure. But there are hints that the compound also provides some protection from the sun's rays: Test subjects had few sunburned cells.
Melanotan-1 is still far from a tanning pill. The hormone only works by injection. It also causes side effects that include flushing, nausea and bloating. EpiTan is working on a subdermal implant that it hopes will reduce these problems.
Even if scientists eventually find a way to give people a true sunless tan, some worry that instead of slashing rates of skin cancer, it could cause an increase. "You wouldn't want people to relax and think, I've got a tan and I'm protected," cautions Dorr. "I think we've got to keep our guard up."