A Better Stronger Sunscreen–Powered By Ancient Underwater Bacteria

The next generation of sunscreen may come from an unlikely place: microbacteria from a lake in Norway. And it will work a lot better than what you’re slathering on today.

A Better Stronger Sunscreen–Powered By Ancient Underwater Bacteria
Sunburn via Shutterstock

Skin cancer affects about 2 million Americans a year, and the problem is getting worse. Between 1970 and 2009, the incidence of melanoma rose 800% among young women–a trend tied to tanning salons and obsessions with perma-tans.


One cause: sunscreen isn’t as effective as it might be. Manufacturers overstate claims, there’s a lack of regulatory oversight, and so-called “broad spectrum” products don’t cover the full spectrum.

A research institute in northern Norway thinks it may have found something that could help, from an unlikely place: the local lake. SINTEF has been bioprospecting the Trondheim Fjord for several years, building a library of microorganisms that absorb sunlight. Each has a particular bright color because of its naturally occurring pigments.

SINTEF took an organism containing a substance called sarcinaxanthin and genetically engineered it to create an artificial bacteria. The institute is now using that material to farm the pigment in larger quantities, using on-site cultivation tanks. A Norwegian company called Promar plans to market the substance as “UVAblue.”

“Current sunscreen does not absorb longer UV light in the 320 to 470 nanometer range. We know that can cause skin cancer, too,” says Trygve Brautaset, the institute’s research director. “The idea about sarcinaxanthin is to extend protection range for sunscreen to also cover these wave lengths, providing better overall protection.”

Brautaset says that the researchers were attracted to the lake because of its rich biology. They sampled for microbes both on the surface and the bottom, focusing on “pigmented bacteria due to special sunlight conditions there.”

He says the main challenge now is to find a way to produce the fjord-born gunk in greater volumes, and to ensure that sarcinaxanthin remains stable and absorbs light in all necessary conditions. So far though, he says “progress has been good, and there have been no negative discoveries.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.