Melanin is the natural pigment found in nearly all types of organisms that is responsible for our skin, eye, and hair color. But, its true power lies in its ability to convert light into heat, protecting us from the sun’s damaging effects. Without melanin, our skin would fry.
Yet, despite its key role, understanding melanin’s structure has been akin to solving a complex puzzle. But now, an international team of scientists from McGill University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Girona are beginning to assemble the pieces.
In the process, this newly cracked code could be used to finally incorporate melanin into sunscreen products. This would offer the best protection against harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, saving countless lives lost to melanoma and other skin cancers.
The Molecular Protector
For years, melanin has perplexed researchers due to its molecular complexity. It’s like trying to study a chameleon: elusive and always changing. Consequently, incorporating melanin into personal care products like sunscreens has remained a slow, trial-and-error process. Until now.
The researchers have uncovered one of melanin’s components responsible for its UV-shielding properties. According to Jean-Philip Lumb, one of the lead authors of the paper, this breakthrough will empower scientists to synthesize similar molecules to incorporate into skincare products.
This melanin component is a very small molecule known as indole-5,6-quinone (IQ). Despite its size, this green molecule is a heavyweight champion when it comes to sun protection. IQ is responsible for:
- Broad-spectrum conversion: IQ converts a wide range of light into heat (from ultraviolet to infrared).
- Size advantage: Its small size means you need less material to achieve an effective level of sun protection, making it an attractive candidate for future sunscreens.
“We’ve taken a major step forward in understanding a new mechanism for how melanin can serve as a sunscreen,” Lumb said.
But the potential uses for this newfound knowledge extend far beyond skincare. The researchers believe that IQ’s energy-absorbing and magnetic properties could make it a suitable candidate for alternative energy sources. For instance, similar molecules could be incorporated into next-gen solar panels that convert more frequencies from the light spectrum, thereby upping efficiency.
The findings appeared in the journal Nature Chemistry.