Skin Tan Implant: Tanning from the Inside Out

How a little chip designed for skin disorders might mean new method of sun tanning.

The Scenesse tanning implant. The Scenesse tanning implant.I had a friend who frequented the tanning salon. I watched as her weekly habit gradually darkened her skin to deeper shades of bronze. Only when she started to look conspicuously orange did she stop the sessions. But she was not alone in her quest for the bronzed glow; she’s among the nearly 30 million who choose indoor tanning in the United States each year, supporting the roughly $5 billion industry.

While Vitamin D, which our bodies make from sunlight, is considered a mood booster, there’s no question that overexposure to the sun or to artificial ultraviolet light from tanning beds is harmful. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the United States, affecting more people in the past 31 years (and yearly) than all other cancers combined.

The Tanning Implant

Enter a potential solution: tanning from the inside out. Makers of a tiny implant “approximately the size of a grain of rice” have developed a product that stimulates production of melanin in the skin. The manufacturer is Clinuvel. The product is Scenesse. The craze is a wave of attention about the chip’s sun-tanning benefits.

Before going wild about the benefits of sunless sun tanning, a word to the wise: the implant has been developed to help people with skin disorders, and for people at an increased risk for developing skin cancer. According to the Clinuvel site, “To date, Clinuvel has spent over $80 million developing the Scenesse implant drug product as a therapeutic photoprotective drug for patients who are most at risk from UV and sun exposure… It is proposed that Scenesse will provide prophylactic treatment to patients suffering from these disorders by stimulating melanin to act as a photoprotective filtering the impact of UV to the skin.”

Translation: clinical trials are underway to focus on treating patients diagnosed with erythropoietic protoporphyria (EEP) and skin cancers, among other skin disorders. EEP is a rare, inherited disorder; the symptoms (which include pain, and severe swelling and blistering of the skin) are caused by exposure to visible light. The implant works by increasing melanin, thus darkening the skin, and by protecting against UV radiation. The results lead to about a two-month tan, which, if the drug enters the cosmetics industry, could introduce a revolutionary way of achieving a tan.   

The Future of Tanning?

In ancient times, the sun was revered and worshipped as a source of life; today, it is increasingly used to bake bodies to a golden brown. When did the quest for coppery sun-kissed limbs become the norm? A brief timeline of the last century documents how advances in science bred obsessions (with a little help from fashion and advertising):

1903:  Niels Finsen awarded Nobel Prize for his work involving light therapy to fight infectious diseases.

1920s:  Modeling the sunburn she developed after a trip to the French Riviera, designer Coco Chanel unleashes a trend.

1930s-40s:  Sunbathing given the OK for children by medical profession.

1950s:  Coppertone girl ads introduced.

1970-80s:  Popularity of sunlamps and tanning salons rises (bringing the source inside).

1970s:  Dramatic increase in melanoma cases from previous decades.

1990s:  Scientists learn that that UVA exposure exacerbates cancer-causing effects of UVB.

Today: Despite numerous campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of tanning (from sun and salons), the obsession for the “bronzed glow” persists; meanwhile, legislation is enacted to restrict indoor tanning in 22 states in the U.S. 

Could Scenesse follow in the footsteps of a similar predecessor, Botox, the muscle relaxant that is now commonly used as an anti-wrinkle treatment? Botox ranked first among the most commonly performed minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures in 2010. Combined, minimally-invasive and surgical procedures totaled 13.1 million in the United States in 2010, up five percent from the previous year. And the winners, according to statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS):

Top five surgical procedures:

  1. breast augmentation
  2. nose reshaping
  3. eyelid surgery
  4. liposuction
  5. tummy tuck

Top five minimally invasive procedures:

  1. botulinum toxin type A (Botox)
  2. soft tissue fillers
  3. chemical peel
  4. laser hair removal
  5. microdermabrasion 

Tanning procedures are not yet included on these lists, but the tanning obsession seems to lurk close by—it definitely fits into the same anti-aging, beautifying territory into which the rest of these procedures fit. More research into the benefits or harm of using the implant to get a tan will be required before it becomes available to the public. But, if proven safe for cosmetic purposes, could the implant’s tanning effect convert the millions who visit tanning salons? Or, will the obsession with tanned skin ever fade? 

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