The future of sustainable skincare.
Seaspire, a startup born out of Northeastern University, is pioneering a new category of multifunctional materials with extensive implications for human health and environmental safety. The team has unlocked the ability to recreate and package the chemical machinery of the chromatophore, a pigment-containing organ found in the skin of marine life like squid and other cephalopods. Chromatophores enable these animals to adapt to their environment by changing color almost instantaneously.
Camille Martin and Leila Deravi, Seaspire’s co-founders, will use this chromatophore-inspired class of pigments — coined xanthochrome by the team — to replace the harmful active ingredients that provide UV filtering in existing sunscreens.
Xanthochrome has the potential to be among the first UV filters that can protect against solar irradiation and be used in preventative skincare, while reducing toxicities to marine organisms. The compounds have the ability to scatter and absorb light and can protect against a broader spectrum of UV radiation (from UV to near IR) compared with current physical and chemical UV filters.
Recent research indicates a link between ubiquitous UV chemical filters and the health of marine ecosystems like coral reefs. Chemical filters are easily washed off into the oceans, contaminating the seabed. Major tourist destinations like Key West, the US Virgin Islands, Palau, and the entirety of Hawaii, have banned the use of sunscreens with these chemicals.
With growing environmental concerns regarding regular sunscreen use, efforts have also been made to re-evaluate the safety and efficacy of sunscreens for human use, an initiative spearheaded by several regulatory agencies worldwide. There is no doubt, however, that sunscreen is one of the easiest and most proven ways to prevent skin cancer. This disparity demands a solution — something that offers all the benefits of traditional chemical UV filters, without adverse effects on human and marine health. And with a global market size of almost $10B for suncare products, such a material presents a massive business opportunity.
Martin, Seaspire’s CEO, had long known that she would pursue some type of novel cosmetics and skincare. A chemist by training, she completed her PhD in co-founder Deravi’s lab where she helped synthesize and process xanthochrome. While at Northeastern, Martin was also inducted into the Huntington 100 — one of the university’s most prestigious student awards — in recognition of her dedication to entrepreneurship.
Deravi, a cephalopod specialist, is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University, where she focuses on understanding the role of pigments and proteins involved in the dynamic color change of living systems. Her team’s research has received support from the US Army, US Navy, and the National Science Foundation. It has also been published in leading academic journals, and featured in The New York Times and Chemical and Engineering News.
Such recognition is not without warrant. Martin, Deravi, and team are decoding the secrets of compounds that took millennia to evolve and until now have remained under the stewardship of some of the planet’s most striking animals.
It seems only fitting that xanthochrome has the potential to transform the health of the marine ecosystems from which they arose. As components of suncare products and cosmetics, the pigments could transform these industries as sustainable, high-performance, and nontoxic alternatives to the status quo.
* Team photo courtesy of Ruby Wallau / Northeastern University