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Courtesy of Mike Allen and Steve Gschmeissner

Using algae to develop next generation sunscreens (ALGAE-SUN)

Principle investigator: Carole Llewellyn
Swansea University

Current sunscreen products are proving damaging to our coastal ecosystems.  This has led to a ban of synthetic organic sunscreens in some areas of the world:  When we swim in the sea with sunscreen on or use cosmetic products containing sunscreens these products end up in the sea.  In Hawaii, for example, there is ban in-state sale of sunscreens containing either oxybenzone or octinoxate, suspected to harm coral reefs.  Furthermore, it is emerging that the application of sunscreens to the skin can be harmful to our health:  Some sunscreen compounds have been found to harm health by disrupting hormone signalling linked to an increase cancer risk.  There is thus an urgent need to develop naturally produced sustainable sunscreen products that do not damage the natural environment and that are proven to be safe to use on the skin.

Microalgae containing natural sunscreen pigments called mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs) could provide a perfect sustainable replacement to current sunscreen products. MAAs have exceptionally strong absorption across a broad range of wavelengths of the UV spectrum.  However, there are challenges that need to be overcome to make MAAs commercially viable. These challenges relate to producing MAAs at high purity to provide protective effectiveness on the skin and against DNA damage.

In this project, ALGAE-SUN, the Biosciences Department at Swansea University will collaborate with two commercial companies, Natural Products Factory Ltd and Membranology Ltd, and with the School of Medicine at Swansea University.  In ALGAE-SUN we will overcome commercial barriers by developing a new separation and concentration process.  By applying membrane separation processing techniques, we will concentrate and purify MAAs from cultivated algae. This will enable us to determine quantities of MAAs required to be effective and safe in the protection of DNA and the skin against UV.