The sunless tanning agent dihydroxyacetone induces stress response gene expression and signaling in cultured human keratinocytes and reconstructed epidermis

Jessica Perer, Jana Jandova, Jocelyn Fimbres, Erin Q. Jennings, James J. Galligan, Anh Hua, Georg T. Wondrak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Sunless (chemical) tanning is widely regarded as a safe alternative to solar UV-induced skin tanning known to be associated with epidermal genotoxic stress, but the cutaneous biology impacted by chemical tanning remains largely unexplored. Chemical tanning is based on the formation of melanin-mimetic cutaneous pigments (‘melanoidins’) from spontaneous amino-carbonyl (‘glycation’) reactions between epidermal amino acid/protein components and reactive sugars including the glycolytic ketose dihydroxyacetone (DHA). Here, we have examined the cutaneous effects of acute DHA-exposure on cultured human HaCaT keratinocytes and epidermal reconstructs, profiled by gene expression array analysis and immunodetection. In keratinocytes, DHA-exposure performed at low millimolar concentrations did not impair viability while causing a pronounced cellular stress response as obvious from rapid activation of phospho-protein signal transduction [p-p38, p-Hsp27(S15/S78), p-eIF2α] and gene expression changes (HSPA6, HMOX1, CRYAB, CCL3), not observable upon exposure to the non-ketose, tanning-inactive DHA-control glycerol. Formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) from posttranslational protein-adduction was confirmed by quantitative mass spectrometric detection of N-ε-(carboxyethyl)-L-lysine (CEL) and N7-carboxyethyl-L-arginine, and skin cells with CRISPR-Cas9-based elimination of the carbonyl stress response gene GLO1 (encoding glyoxalase 1) displayed hypersensitivity to DHA-cytotoxicity. In human epidermal reconstructs a topical use-relevant DHA-dose regimen elicited a comparable stress response as revealed by gene expression array (HSPA1A, HSPA6, HSPD1, IL6, DDIT3, EGR1) and immunohistochemical analysis (CEL, HO-1, p-Hsp27-S78). In DHA-treated SKH-1 hairless mouse skin IHC-detection revealed epidermal occurrence of CEL- and p-Hsp27-epitopes. For comparison, stress response gene expression array analysis was performed in epidermis exposed to a supra-erythemal dose of solar simulated UV (2 MEDs), identifying genes equally or differentially sensitive to either one of these cutaneous stimuli [DHA (‘sunless tanning’) versus solar UV (‘sun-induced tanning’)]. Given the worldwide use of chemical tanners in consumer products, these prototype data documenting a DHA-induced specific cutaneous stress response deserve further molecular exploration in living human skin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101594
JournalRedox Biology
StatePublished - Sep 2020


  • Dihydroxyacetone
  • Glycation
  • Phosphoprotein signaling
  • Reconstructed human epidermis
  • Stress response gene expression
  • Sunless tanning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Organic Chemistry
  • Clinical Biochemistry


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