It’s possible that the fountain of youth has been under our very noses for more than 140 years. Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that the chemical antioxidant methylene blue not only slows the effects of aging on skin cells but also reverses them.
Methylene blue has had a wide variety of uses since chemists invented it in 1876: It’s been used to treat urinary tract infections and cyanide poisoning and to prevent malaria. These days, doctors use it as a dye for certain types of surgeries, and tropical fish owners use it to protect their pets from fungal and bacterial infections. Most recently, scientists have studied its effectiveness in treating Alzheimer’s disease and in extending the lifespan of mice. The team at the University of Maryland made the leap to see what it could do for skin, and they published their results on May 30 in the journal Scientific Reports.
The researchers first tested the chemical on skin cells from healthy middle-aged adults, people with a genetic disease that increases signs of aging, and adults 80 and older. As compared with other antioxidants (and nothing at all), the cells treated with methylene blue had fewer damaging molecules, less cell death, and more cell reproduction.
“Methylene blue demonstrates a great potential to delay skin aging for all ages,” senior author Kan Cao, associate professor at UMD, said in a statement, adding that the effect lasted beyond the four-week treatment period. “The effects we are seeing are not temporary. Methylene blue appears to make fundamental, long-term changes to skin cells.”
When they tested methylene blue on a 3D simulated model of skin, they found that it could actually make the skin look younger.
“Most surprisingly, we saw that model skin treated with methylene blue retained more water and increased in thickness — both of which are features typical of younger skin,” said lead author Zheng-Mei Xiong, an assistant research professor at UMD, in the statement.
Before you start shopping for straight methylene blue to slather on your face, remember that this is a blue dye, after all. Back when it was used as an antimalarial drug, some weren’t too happy with the way it turned both their urine and the whites of their eyes blue. Then again, the color may be a positive, considering that the chemical is one of the ingredients in the French eye-whitening drops Collyre Bleu, which are not sold in the U.S.
The UMD team said they’re working on ways to make the anti-aging ingredient into something we really can use safely.
“We have already begun formulating cosmetics that contain methylene blue,” Cao said. “Now we are looking to translate this into marketable products.”
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