Mom says to use sunscreen, but could it actually be harmful?

UF College of Pharmacy researchers hope a new amino-acid-harvesting method will make sunscreen less harmful and more environmentally friendly.

According to National Geographic, commercial sunscreens often wash into the ocean, bleaching coral and hurting marine life with harsh chemicals. The College of Pharmacy has also found that sunscreen is potentially harmful to the human reproductive system.

Yousong Ding, principal investigator of the five-person team, said an amino acid called shinorine could help.

Chemical filters in sunscreen — while protecting us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays — cause environmental damage. Amino acids, on the other hand, can be natural filters, Ding said. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, shinorine is exceptionally good at absorbing ultraviolet rays.

After five years of research, the team found a fast and practical way to grow shinorine, improving upon time-consuming processes.

Manyun Chen, a UF graduate student working on the project, said shinorine has been harvested from red algae. However, algae grows slowly, and environmental changes can affect the amount of shinorine produced. 

“Although I am not sure if this is the major reason why it has not been available to the general public, overproduction of shinorine in a well-controlled manner will definitely decrease the cost of producing this compound,” she said in an email.

 In January, the UF researchers found a model cyanobacterium called Synechocystis, which allows them to grow shinorine quicker. The shorter production time makes it more possible for the environmentally friendly sunscreen to be sold in stores, Chen said. The new method has been patented. 

The team is trying to get a company to invest in the research to get the ball rolling toward selling the sunscreen. Ding said the goal for any researcher is to have their product available to help the public.

“Our researcher program is very interested in finding some viable solutions to address some of the important problems our society is facing, be that health, pollution, agriculture and environmental,” Ding said.