Sunblock of future? Study finds salmon sperm-derived ‘DNA sunscreen’ works better longer you wear it

BINGHAMTON, N. Y. — The sunscreen of the future may have just been discovered.

A recent Binghamton University study finds a thin transparent crystalline DNA film can get better at blocking harmful sunlight the longer it is exposed to it. Derived in part from salmon sperm, this potential sunscreen self-assembles into an increasingly protective layer under UV light.

Person laying out at beach
Researchers have developed a new DNA sunscreen — partially derived from salmon sperm — that actually works better the longer it’s on.

If commercialized, it could possibly solve the old problem of having to remember to reapply sunscreen frequently.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” says Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University, in a press release. “We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

After developing and testing this theory, German and a team of researchers found another benefit of the potential sunscreen is that it is hygroscopic — which means it locks moisture in and would help keep skin from drying out.

The researchers also intend to also test the possibility of using the DNA coating as a wound covering.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly,” says German. “But if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments.”

News of this research comes at the height of summer, when many are most in danger of receiving burns. Highlighting the increasingly researched damage caused by too much sun, the Binghamton University research paper notes previous studies have shown UV light “to be the most prominent carcinogen in our natural environment.”

The paper goes on to explain that UV irradiation can cause two types of DNA lesion and that both of these lesions “distort the molecular structure: introducing bends and kinks and thereby impeding transcription and replication.”

A recent episode of the podcast Stuff You Should Know also sought to bring attention to the dangers of sunburn, noting one recent estimate suggested indoor tanning “caused about 420,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States every year.” They said this was about double the number of lung cancer cases caused by smoking in the country each year.

The same episode also debunked the myth that a suntan offers substantial protection from the sun, noting “a base tan provides an SPF of 3 or less, which means it buys you about 10 extra minutes in the sun.”

Exactly how much protection a sunscreen developed from a crystalline DNA film could provide in the real world remains to be seen.

The Binghamton University research was published Scientific Reports this week.