New Zealand researchers have used world-first technology to discover how melanin protects the skin from UV radiation.
Their findings could lead to better sunscreens and longer-lasting paints.
A maze of mirrors and lenses lies inside Victoria University's laser lab, and it's unlocking the secrets of the skin.
Victoria University professor of chemistry Justin Hodgkiss, who is also co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute, said the university's ultrafast optical spectroscopy lab had a specific advantage in carrying out this research.
"As far as we know, no one else in the world has this powerful mix of three different ultrafast spectroscopy methods required to build a picture of eumelanin: ultrafast fluorescence, ultrafast transient absorption and ultrafast Raman spectroscopy."
The complex laser technology is a game-changer.
"It opens up a window on lots of processes in nature, in synthetic materials like solar panels and photonics, that simply couldn't be seen before," said Prof Hodgkiss.
The research, which was supported by the Marsden Fund, involved studying a particular type of melanin called eumelanin. Melanin in the skin protects us against damaging UV radiation by dissipating it into heat, but exactly how that process works hasn't been well understood - until now.
"The first step of this energy dissipation mechanism in melanin happens within millionths of a billionth of a second," he said.
The project began six years ago and has built on over a decade of laser technology.
"What we've learned from nature might help us design new types of UV filters, for, let's say, new options for sunscreens," said Prof Hodgkiss.
Something dermatologist Dr Amanda Oakley is keen to see.
"We certainly need better sunscreens and more research going into them. Particularly if it is local here in New Zealand, in New Zealand conditions, with New Zealand skin - that's fantastic," she said.
Especially because of our high UV levels.
"Our rates of melanoma and of mortality from melanoma beat everywhere else, including Australia, and that's partly because of UV," said Dr Oakley.
Those UV rays are also bad news for paint which is why Victoria University's melanin research has caught the eye of Resene's technical director, Colin Gooch, who is excited about its possibilities for longer-lasting paint.
"We want to be ahead of the game always, particularly as it's a New Zealand development," he said.
Gooch said Resene's main goal is to make paints last longer.
"The less number of times you have to repaint it, that's the best contribution to the environment," he said.