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People come in so many beautiful colors—we have melanin to thank for that. From different human skin tones to hair hues to eye colors, melanin is responsible for it all. But it does more than just color our world. Read on to learn more about melanin’s role in the human body.
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What is melanin?
Melanin is a term for a group of natural pigments found in most forms of life. In human beings, melanocytes, cells in the innermost layer of skin (the basal layer) and hair follicles, make melanin. This pigment gives color to your skin, hair, nose, inner ear, and choroid in the eyes (the area between the retina and the white sclera) (Schlessinger, 2021).
Melanin plays a delicate dual role in the body. On the one hand, it helps protect the body from the effects of ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun (and sunlamps) by producing a brownish pigment (a tan). But melanin can also collect in concentrated forms that pose health risks. While there’s no proven way to increase melanin levels safely, there are steps you can take to keep your skin healthy and functioning normally.
Types of melanin
There are three types of melanin: eumelanin, pheomelanin, and neuromelanin. Eumelanin can be further broken down into black and brown types. Levels of eumelanin affect the appearance of hair color, for example. Lots of black or brown eumelanin leads to darker hair, while small amounts lead to blond hair (Schlessinger, 2021).
Pheomelanin levels also influence skin color, producing yellow and red hues and pink tones (think: pink lips). If you have equal amounts of pheomelanin and eumelanin, you end up with red hair (Schlessinger, 2021).
Neuromelanin may lend a distinct dark color to parts of the brain. Research suggests the presence of this pigment may help prevent cell death in parts of the brain. The loss of pheomelanin is linked to the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, a neurologic disorder (Vila, 2019).
Role of melanin in the body
Melanin plays a significant part in determining the color of your hair, skin, and eyes. Your genes, inherited from your parents, largely dictate how much melanin you make; people with darker skin have more melanin than people with fair (light-colored) skin do.
What is sun-damaged skin (photoaging) and how to treat it
The body makes melanin through several chemical reactions known as melanogenesis. A key step in this complex sequence is the oxidation of the amino acid tyrosine, which is one of several building blocks of protein. Notably, the amount of melanin produced in the skin creates differences in skin color—not the number of melanocytes in the skin (Schlessinger, 2021).
Unfortunately, things don’t always go as they should with skin pigmentation. For example, individuals with the genetic disorder albinism have little or no melanin pigment, which leads to minimal or no coloring in skin, hair, and eyes; most have white or light blond hair and extremely pale skin (Federico, 2020).
Vitiligo is another illness involving too little melanin. It occurs when the cells usually involved in melanin production either stop working or die, often leading to patches of minimal or no coloring in the skin (Schlessinger, 2021).
Benefits of melanin
Melanin absorbs ultraviolet radiation and acts as a sunscreen, offering protection against both UVA and UVB light. With exposure to UV light, melanocyte production and activity ramps up, and skin darkens as melanin levels rise. You can see this in your tan lines and the development of concentrations of melanin pigment—freckles—after sun exposure (Schlessinger, 2021).
Eumelanin not only absorbs harmful UV rays but also serves as an antioxidant and free radical scavenger. It helps eliminate abnormal and sun-damaged cells that can lead to diseases like skin cancer (Schlessinger, 2021).
Studies show that people with more melanin (darker skin) are less likely to get skin cancer than those with lighter skin (LaBerge, 2020).
However, there is no such thing as a safe tan—anyone can get skin cancer. The higher levels of melanin from a tan signify that you are exposing your skin to harmful UV rays, thereby increasing your risk of skin cancer.
Melanin and vitamin D
Research regarding the link between melanin and vitamin D is not definitive. Your skin cells make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight—this is why vitamin D is sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin.”
What does vitamin D do?
People with dark skin tones may need at least three to five times more exposure to sunlight to make the same amount of vitamin D as a person with white skin (Nair, 2012). Several studies show that darker-skinned people are at a higher risk of developing vitamin D deficiency—however, this may depend on their climate and other factors (Yousef, 2021).
Can melanin be increased?
There’s no proof that you can safely raise melanin levels with dietary supplements, vitamins, or other means. The United States Food and Drug Administration warns there is no “magic pill” to accelerate tanning with just a bit of UV light exposure (FDA, 2021).
Can you support melanin production?
While there’s no instant solution, a nutritious and balanced diet may help ensure that melanin levels stay where they should be. Eating foods rich in antioxidant vitamins (A, C, and E) and staying hydrated may help you maintain healthy skin.
Oxidative stress caused by unstable molecules (free radicals) is a major cause of skin damage over time. Antioxidants may help prevent or delay skin cell damage and other types of damage by counteracting free radicals. Nutrients with antioxidant properties include (Cao, 2020):
- Vitamin A, present in fish, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, carrots, tomato products, and other orange and yellow vegetables
- Vitamin C, present in fruits and vegetables like red and green peppers, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, tomatoes, and baked potatoes
- Vitamin E, present in vegetable oils and nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables
Eager to keep melanin production humming? Limit sun exposure and pack in those fruits and veggies!
- Cao, C., Xiao, Z., Wu, Y., & Ge, C. (2020). Diet and skin aging-from the perspective of food nutrition. Nutrients, 12(3), 870. doi: 10.3390/nu12030870. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32213934/
- Federico, J. R. & Krishnamurthy, K. (2020). Albinism. [Updated Aug 27, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 4, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519018/
- LaBerge, G. S., Duvall, E., Grasmick, Z., Haedicke, K., Galan, A., Leverett, J., et al. (2020). Recent advances in studies of skin color and skin cancer. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 93(1), 69–80. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7087065/
- Nair R, Maseeh A. (2012). Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin. Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics, 3(2),118-126. doi: 10.4103/0976-500X.95506, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3356951/
- Schlessinger, D. I., Anoruo, M. D., Schlessinger, J. (2021). Biochemistry, melanin. [Updated May 9, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 4, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459156/
- Sizar, O., Khare, S., Goyal, A., et al. (2021). Vitamin D deficiency. [Updated July 21, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 4, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532266/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2020, Aug) Tanning Pills. Retrieved on Oct 4, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/tanning-pills
- Vila, M. (2019). Neuromelanin, aging, and neuronal vulnerability in Parkinson’s disease. Movement Disorders, 34(10), 1440–1451. doi: 10.1002/mds.27776. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31251435/
- Yousef, S., Manuel, D., Colman, I., Papadimitropoulos, M., Hossain, A., Faris, M., & Wells, G. A. (2021). Vitamin D status among first-generation immigrants from different ethnic groups and origins: an observational study using the Canadian health measures survey. Nutrients, 13(8), 2702. doi: 10.3390/nu13082702. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8400966/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.