Melanin is a substance present in the skin that produces pigment. Each person has a different amount of melanin in their skin.

The variation of melanin is due to genetics and other factors.

In this article, we discuss the function of melanin. We also look at its benefits and whether or not a person can have too much or too little of it in the skin.

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Melanin is a substance in the skin that produces skin pigmentation. Scientists have identified three forms of melanin in humans:

  • eumelanin
  • pheomelanin
  • neuromelanin

Eumelanin and pheomelanin are in the epidermis, which is one of the layers of the skin. By contrast, neuromelanin is present in the brain.

Melanocytes are the cells that produce eumelanin and pheomelanin. Cells known as keratinocytes then carry melanin to the skin surface.

In people with dark skin, melanocytes produce more melanin than they do in people with light skin tones.

Melanin has a variety of biological functions, such as:

  • pigmentation of the hair
  • pigmentation of the skin
  • protection of the eyes and skin from sunlight

Melanocytes produce melanin in the so-called basal layer, which is the innermost layer of the epidermis. Keratinocytes then carry melanin to the skin surface.

Differences in skin pigmentation between people are due to the ratio of eumelanin to pheomelanin, as well as the number of melanocytes.

Pheomelanin is responsible for the pinkish color of the lips, nipples, vagina, and penis glans.

Different hair colors result from different proportions of various forms of melanin. For example:

Hair colorMelanin type and amount
blacka large quantity of eumelanin
browna moderate quantity of eumelanin
blonda very little quantity of eumelanin
redprimarily pheomelanin, with only a small quantity of eumelanin

Melanin has a variety of beneficial properties, including:

Protection from UV light

Melanin is a UV-absorbing agent and is able to protect the skin against the effects of UV light on the skin’s surface. It also offers protection against UVB and blue light.

Eumelanin protects the skin from UV light, whereas pheomelanin does not.

As a result, people with more pheomelanin, such as those with blond or red hair and light skin, are more likely to experience sun damage.

Protection against reactive oxygen species

Melanin also has protective effects against reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are byproducts of cellular processes within the body.

A 2012 review notes that when there is an accumulation of ROS in the cells, they can cause cellular damage and stress. ROS has links to aging, cancer, and diabetes.

Melanin is able to pick up ROS that form when UV light stimulates oxidative stress on the skin.

Other benefits

Some research on animals has also indicated other potential benefits of melanin.

For example, a 2016 study on rats found that herbal melanin may be able to prevent the formation of stomach ulcers. This suggests that melanin could play a role in the protection of the gut.

Additionally, previous research also showed that melanin may contribute to the reduction of inflammation in the body, preventing injuries to the liver. It may also play a role in the immune system.

The amount of melanin in the skin will vary from person to person. Genetics plays a dominant role in how much melanin there is in a person’s skin.

Melanocytes house melanin in cells called melanosomes. The amount of melanin in the skin is a result of the quantity and distribution of melanocytes.

A 2020 article notes that skin pigmentation differences are due to the number of melanocytes present in the skin, as well as the ratio of eumelanin to pheomelanin.

Typically, those with light skin have melanocytes that have clusters of two or three melanosomes.

In contrast, those with dark skin generally have individual melanosomes that can also produce melanin for keratinocytes more quickly.

Other factors that can affect the level of melanin in the skin include:

  • age
  • UV light exposure
  • inflammation
  • changes in hormone levels

It is possible for a person to produce too much melanin within the body. Experts call it hyperpigmentation. It can occur due to certain conditions or the presence of excess melanocyte-stimulating hormone.

Some factors that can increase the amount of melanin in the skin include:

  • Addison’s disease
  • hemochromatosis, which is a condition that causes the body to absorb too much iron from food
  • pregnancy
  • sun exposure

Can a person lower melanin levels?

Treatment options are available for hyperpigmentation.

For example, daily application of sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher can help minimize the effects of UV light on the skin.

Additionally, people can use topical treatments, such as:

A person should consult a healthcare professional before using any topical treatments, as these could have side effects, such as increased sensitivity.

Learn more about treatment for hyperpigmentation here.

At times, a person can have too little melanin in the skin. This results in the skin becoming lighter. Healthcare professionals may refer to this as hypopigmentation.

Two examples of hypopigmentation are vitiligo and albinism.

Vitiligo is a skin condition that results in white patches of skin due to the loss of melanocytes.

Albinism is a genetic condition that causes people to have very little or no melanin pigment in the eyes, skin, or hair.

Can a person increase melanin levels?

There does not appear to be a safe way to increase the amount of melanin in the skin.

Although tanning is an indication that the skin is releasing melanin, it is not a safe way to increase melanin levels. The Skin Cancer Foundation notes that tanning increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

Learn more about increasing melanin levels here.

However, a person can consume certain nutrients to help the skin defend itself from UV damage.

According to 2018 research, antioxidants may have the potential to increase the amount of melanin in the skin.

Melanocytes create melanin through the process of melanogenesis, which is also an oxidative process that produces ROS. Antioxidants are able to relieve this oxidative stress and reduce cellular damage.

Foods high in antioxidants include:

Depending on what is causing the hypopigmentation, there are some treatment options available.

For example, vitiligo treatment can include using sunscreen and phototherapy.

Melanin is a substance that melanocytes produce in the skin surface, which results in skin pigment. Each person will have a different amount of melanin in their skin.

The amount of melanocytes and the ratio of the forms of melanin in the skin dictate how much melanin is present.

Some conditions and environmental factors can decrease or increase the amount of melanin in the skin.

Additionally, methods are available to either lower or increase melanin levels in the skin. However, a person should consult a healthcare professional before considering any treatment options.