What is melanin?
Melanin is a complex polymer that originates from the amino acid tyrosine. Melanin is present in human and animal skin to varying degrees, and is responsible for your unique eye, hair and skin color.
What does melanin do?
Melanin provides pigmentation to your skin, eyes and hair. The substance also absorbs harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays and protects your cells from sun damage.
Where is melanin produced?
Melanin is produced in melanocytes. These cells are located in different areas of your body, including:
- Your hair.
- The innermost layer of your skin.
- Your pupils and irises.
- The substantia nigra and locus coeruleus (areas of your brain).
- The medulla and zona reticularis (areas of your adrenal gland).
- The stria vascularis of your cochlear duct (part of your inner ear).
What are the types of melanin?
There are three different types of melanin, including:
- Eumelanin. There are two types of eumelanin: black and brown. Eumelanin is responsible for dark colors in skin, eyes and hair. People with brown or black hair have varying amounts of brown and black eumelanin. When there’s no black eumelanin and a small amount of brown eumelanin, it results in blonde hair.
- Pheomelanin. This type of melanin pigments your lips, nipples and other pinkish parts of your body. People who have equal parts eumelanin and pheomelanin have red hair.
- Neuromelanin. While eumelanin and pheomelanin control the colors of things you see (such as skin, hair and eyes), neuromelanin is responsible for the color of your neurons.
How does melanin affect skin color?
Your unique combination of eumelanin and pheomelanin is responsible for your skin, hair and eye color. Typically, all humans have the same number of melanocytes. However, the amount of melanin produced by these melanocytes varies. People with more melanin generally have darker skin, eyes and hair compared to those with little melanin. Additionally, people who’re born with clusters of melanocytes have freckles.
How does melanin protect the skin?
When you spend time out in the sun, your body produces more melanin. The substance absorbs light from UV rays and redistributes it toward the upper layers of skin. It also protects the genetic material stored in your cells by keeping out harmful UV rays.
But keep in mind that melanin alone isn’t enough to protect your skin from sun damage. That’s why it’s so important to wear sunscreen and appropriate clothing whenever you’re outside.
What are the benefits of melanin?
Notable melanin benefits include:
- Protection from UV rays. Melanin protects your skin by absorbing harmful rays, including UVA, UVB, UVC and blue light.
- Protection against reactive oxygen species (ROS). Reactive oxygen species are byproducts of your body’s cell processes. When ROS accumulate in your cells, they can lead to stress, premature aging and health concerns such as diabetes and cancer. Melanin scavenges for ROS, boosting antioxidants and eliminating free radicals.
Studies also suggest that melanin may aid in immune system support and the reduction of inflammation in your body. More research is necessary to determine the full extent of these benefits.
Conditions and Disorders
Are there disorders related to melanin production?
Melanin deficiency is linked to a number of skin disorders and health conditions. Some of these include:
- Vitiligo. This condition causes your skin to lose color, resulting in white patches. It occurs when melanocytes are destroyed by your immune system. While vitiligo affects all races, it’s more noticeable in people with darker skin.
- Albinism. When a person has very little melanin, it results in this rare disorder. People with albinism have pale skin, white hair and blue eyes. There’s also an increased risk for vision loss and sun damage.
- Melasma. People with melasma have brown or blue-gray patches on their faces or arms. This condition may be caused by hormones, exposure to the sun or birth control pills. Prescription creams, laser skin resurfacing or chemical peels can help lighten the dark patches.
- Pigment loss following skin damage. If your skin becomes infected, burned or blistered, your body may not be able to replace melanin in the damaged area.
- Hearing loss. Because melanin is found in the stria vascularis of your inner ear, it’s been linked to hearing loss. People who have too little melanin have a higher risk for hearing problems.
- Parkinson’s disease. Typically, neuromelanin in your brain increases as we age. However, in people with Parkinson’s disease, brain cells in their substantia nigra die. As this happens, neuromelanin decreases.
Is it possible to have too much melanin?
Some people make an excess of melanin. This is known as hyperpigmentation, and it’s harmless. People who make too much melanin usually have patches of skin that become darker than the surrounding skin.
How can I increase melanin?
Though many products claim to boost melanin levels, there isn’t any research that supports their effectiveness. Experts continue exploring ways to naturally increase melanin to prevent sun damage and skin cancer.
There’s also a common misconception that tanning is a safe way to increase melanin. In reality, this practice significantly increases your risk for skin cancer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are melanin and melatonin the same thing?
No. Though the terms sound similar, they refer to different things. Melanin is a pigment responsible for skin tone. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your waking and sleeping cycle.
Does melanin cause vitamin D deficiency?
Some experts believe that people who have darker skin are more prone to vitamin D deficiency than people with lighter skin. This is because excess melanin absorbs the UV rays responsible for vitamin D synthesis. There are studies that support this claim, but more research is needed in this area.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Melanin plays an important role in shielding your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. But remember, melanin isn’t a substitute for proper sun protection. No matter what your skin tone, you should always wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 when venturing outdoors.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy