The meaning of melanin
Posted on 11 April 2019
Melanin is the pigment that affects the colour of your skin, eyes and hair. But there is a lot more to melanin than that – it also has a protective function.
WHAT EXACTLY IS MELANIN?
▶ “Melanin is a term for a group of natural pigments or colourants found in both humans and animals,” says Mediclinic Cape Town dermatologist Dr Dilshaad Asmal. “This dark brown or black pigment is found in the skin, hair and the iris of the eye. It is melanin that gives skin, hair and eyes their colour – and different colours. Fair-skinned people have less melanin than those with darker skins.”
IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE A MELANIN DEFICIENCY?
▶ People with albinism have a deficiency in the enzyme that is needed to produce melanin, Dr Asmal explains. This lack of pigment in the skin, eyes and hair causes pale white skin, pale, yellowish hair and muted eye colours.
WHY DO I NEED MELANIN?
▶ Melanin has been found to act as a natural sunblock, Dr Asmal says, which is why people with a lighter skin colour are more prone to sunburn and sun-induced skin cancers. “But if there are high levels of melanin in the body – and a person has a very dark skin – they are at risk of developing a Vitamin D deficiency, especially if they spend minimal time in the sun,” she says.
This is because their darker skin prevents the optimal absorption of Vitamin D from the sun. Dr Asmal adds that darker-skinned people have an innate sunblock protection factor of between 8 and 13 – but they need to be aware that they can still burn. “The less melanin in the melanocytes, the more this lack predisposes a person to the risk of sunburn, skin cancer, photoageing and wrinkling.”
However, if a person has high amounts of melanin, it can also make them more reactive. “This means that any trauma may trigger the production of excess melanin, resulting in dark marks and patches on the skin,” she says. “Both too much or too little melanin can be potentially problematic. It is important to know how to protect your skin, such as avoiding overexposure to the sun or taking Vitamin D supplements if you are not getting enough sun exposure.”
WORDS KERI HARVEY
PHOTOGRAPH GETTY/GALLO IMAGES