Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the major environmental factor affecting functions of the skin. Compounds rich in polyphenols, such as Thymus vulgaris leaf extract and thymol, have been proposed for the prevention of UV-induced skin damage. We compared the acute effects induced by UVA and UVB rays on epidermal morphology and proliferation, cytotoxicity, and genotoxicity. Normal human skin explants were obtained from young healthy women (n = 7) after informed consent and cultured at the air-liquid interface overnight. After 24 h, the samples were divided in 2 groups: the former exposed to UVA (16 or 24 J/cm2) and the latter irradiated with UVB (0.24 or 0.72 J/cm2). One hour after the end of irradiation, supernatants were collected for evaluation of the lactate dehydrogenase activity. Twenty-four hours after UVB exposure, biopsies were processed for light and transmission electron microscopy analysis, proliferation, cytotoxicity, and genotoxicity. UVB and UVA rays induced early inhibition of cell proliferation and DNA damage compared to controls. In particular, UVB rays were always more cytotoxic and genotoxic than UVA ones. For this reason, we evaluated the effect of either T. vulgaris L. extract (1.82 µg/ml) or thymol (1 µg/ml) on all samples treated for 1 h before UVB irradiation. While Thymus had a protective action for all of the endpoints evaluated, the action of the extract was less pronounced on epidermal proliferation and morphological features. The results presented in this study could be the basis for investigating the mechanism of thymol and T. vulgaris L. extract against the damage induced by UV radiation.

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