top of page

Topical synthetic melanin could prevent, aid repair of skin injury

Researchers have developed a synthetic melanin that could be formulated into topical preparations to protect the skin from the sun and potentially help repair skin damage.

In a press release from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, where the research was conducted, the investigators explain the technology works by scavenging free radicals produced by injured skin. These free radicals, left unchecked, can further damage skin cells, resulting in skin aging and cancer, they write.

“People don’t think of their everyday life as an injury to their skin,” said co-corresponding author Dr. Kurt Lu, in the release. “If you walk barefaced every day in the sun, you suffer a low-grade, constant bombardment of ultraviolet light. This is worsened during peak mid-day hours and the summer season. We know sun-exposed skin ages versus skin protected by clothing, which doesn’t show age nearly as much.”

Dr. Lu is the Eugene and Gloria Bauer Professor of Dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist.

Co-corresponding author Nathan Gianneschi, the Jacob and Rosaline Cohn Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science & Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Pharmacology at Northwestern, said the synthetic melanin can scavenge more free radicals per gram than human melanin while remaining biocompatible, degradable, and nontoxic.

He noted that once applied to the skin, the melanin sits on the surface and is not absorbed into the layers below.

“The synthetic melanin stabilizes and sets the skin on a healing pathway, which we see in both the top layers and throughout the body,” Gianneschi said.

Previously, the research team had tested the synthetic melanin as a sunscreen and found it did protect the skin and skin cells from damage. In their most recently published research (npj Regen Med 2023; 8: 61) the team chemically induced injury on human skin samples, then applied the topical melanin cream to the injured skin.

They observed that within the first few days, the cream facilitated an immune response by first helping the skin’s radical scavenging enzymes to recover, and then by halting the production of inflammatory proteins. This initiated a cascade of responses in which they observed greatly increased rates of healing. This included the preservation of healthy skin layers underneath. In samples that did not have the melanin cream treatment, the blistering persisted.

“The treatment has the effect of setting the skin on a cycle of healing and repair, orchestrated by the immune system,” Dr. Lu said.

There are potentially valuable systemic effects to use of the synthetic melanin topically, the two researchers said. In the release, they note that by collecting free radicals after an injury, the intervention quieted the immune system.

“The epidermis and the upper layers [of the skin] are in communication with the entire body,” Dr. Lu said. “This means that stabilizing those upper layers can lead to a process of active healing.”


bottom of page